At the Core of Utah FORGE – Geothermal at the U

Geothermal Energy at the U - Past, Present and Future

By: Sarah Buening (UofU) July 13, 2023

The University of Utah is responsible for operating nearly 300 buildings that support education, healthcare, research and housing. Powering this infrastructure demands a high influx of energy and, indeed, the majority of the U’s carbon footprint comes from maintaining buildings. However, the U has demonstrated a commitment to pursuing clean energy. In fact, the university has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040. As the transition to renewable energy sources continues, geothermal will remain an important part of the conversation.

Sec. of Energy Jennifer Granholm visiting the pump room at the Gardner Commons (left to right: John Palo, Dr. Joseph Moore (PI Utah FORGE), Sec. Granholm, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson). Photo credit E.Larson

U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm visited the U in early February and praised the geothermal infrastructure it has established to-date, calling geothermal the “holy grail of clean energy.” With the DOE’s support in funding geothermal research and the U’s commitment to sustainability, we foresee a bright future for geothermal energy on this campus. The university’s Facilities Management department has many opportunities for further development on their radar — proving that our progress as a sustainable university is far from over. So, what does the progression of geothermal energy look like at the U?

Geothermal Electricity for the U

The U has one of the “largest long-term green power contracts of any U.S. university.” It’s also one of only 143 institutions worldwide to earn a STARS Gold rating or better in a measure of sustainability assessment. Through a 25-year Financial PPA contract with Cyrq Energy, a Salt Lake City based company, the U receives 130,602,000 kilowatt-hours of geothermal energy per year — also purchasing some geothermal energy from the Soda Lake Field in Nevada. As of 2020, this contract made the U the first public college in Utah to receive more than half of its electricity through renewable sources.

According to Lissa Larson, Associate Director from the Sustainability and Energy team within Facilities Management, 45% of the U’s electricity usage came from geothermal during the 2022 fiscal year. Upon the completion of Castle Solar in southern Utah — which should become commercially operable in September of this year — renewable sources are forecasted to power 71% of the U’s electricity needs. The U’s pending Climate Change Action Plan will highlight the university’s and President Randall’s continued commitment to minimizing our carbon footprint. Looking forward, Larson said, “The university is evaluating our shared infrastructure systems, including opportunities for ground source and thermal storage systems at a campus-wide scale.”

Current Geothermal Heating and Cooling on Campus

In 2018, the U completed its first geothermally heated and cooled building on Campus: Gardner Commons. What began as a student-sponsored project took off and permanently changed the energy portfolio of this university. John Palo, District Manager and U Facilities Safety Committee Chair for Facilities Management, spoke to how the building’s unique design made this feat possible.

Carolyn and Kem Gardner Commons

Plans for the Gardner Commons building initially focused on using energy-efficient building materials and conditioning systems. By using locally sourced and recycled materials, the university cut down on what carbon would’ve been required to transport materials long distances. Trading a traditional heating and cooling system for a variable refrigerant flow (VRF) technology also allowed the building to save on energy and building materials costs.

VRF systems don’t have to move air more than a few feet before recirculating it back into classrooms. By sprinkling heating and cooling units throughout the building, Gardner Commons needs less than one-tenth the air movement of a similarly sized building. VRF also allows for more usable space within a building. Because it requires very small ductwork, the height of floors in VRF buildings are typically shorter than in buildings with large ducting. The incorporation of this design, according to Palo, allowed the building to use about “40% less electricity than the same building using your traditional heating and cooling system.” Over the lifecycle of the building, the money saved from this building plan allowed the university to install a geothermal field.

U of U soccer field

The geothermal field consists of a system of heat pumps that use water circulated through 151 enclosed wells in the field loops beneath the soccer field to the east of the Alumni building. The heat pumps extract heat from geothermal energy stored in the ground, amplifying and transferring the heat to its destination. During the winter, Palo said, it takes a small amount of electricity to move water through the ground field loop — a network of underground water pipes. In the process, the water absorbs geothermal heat and produces an output of almost 1,400 kilowatts of energy. “We were getting 87 times as much energy from the geothermal field as it was costing us to move the water,” Palo noted, “But we have further improved on this with minor sequencing changes to how the system operates, resulting in even further savings.” Overall, the heat pumps save about $70,000 in energy costs, 1.8 million gallons of water and 378 tons of carbon dioxide per year.

What’s the U Doing Next?

Now, students and faculty at the U are eager to replicate Gardner Common’s success. We have many potential avenues for expansion to pursue. For instance, the existing geothermal field has the capacity to hold 14 sub fields. Only 10 currently exist, which is already more than Gardner Commons needs by itself. As it stands, the U has the capacity to connect more buildings to the existing heat pump loop, as well as build four more sub fields — thereby expanding the capacity of the existing field by 40%.

Unlike the water source system in use at Gardner Commons, air source conditioning systems fall short in that they either put heat into the air or pull it back out of the air when they experience a need to heat or cool their spaces. Dumped heat cannot transfer between floors or parts of the building that operate on different units. Even without these limitations, the geothermal source system at Gardner Commons still experiences a net heat excess that is transferred to the ground, causing it to potentially warm up over time. Palo noted that a closed-loop system might help utilize that wasted energy. Some buildings on campus have the infrastructure to use a chilled water system for temperature regulation. Chilled water systems use chilled water to absorb heat from the building’s spaces before dispersing it outside. But, with the advent of newer, exciting technologies, the water loop can also be utilized to heat spaces.

Even in the winter, Gardner Commons becomes excessively heated when many students occupy the building during class time. The higher the population of people inside of a building, the more body heat is generated. It might take some additional engineering, but Gardner Commons could dump some of its excess heat into the chill water return loop to help heat other buildings on campus — including buildings which become less occupied during the day. The existing heat pumps could help this process by transferring more heat into the chill water system that could then get used by neighboring buildings. In essence, the heat given off by the people in Gardner Commons in the winter time could be transferred to other buildings to heat less densely populated buildings.

The U is not the only university trailblazing the path toward carbon neutrality. Colorado Mesa University (CMU) uses a geo-exchange system to heat and cool 70% of its buildings, saving $1.5 million a year on energy costs. Because of this success, CMU is expanding the system to all new construction on its campus and exploring options to expand the system into its surrounding community. Colorado Governor Jared Polis has recognized geothermal as a lower-cost option for residents and a potential way to even help reduce tuition for students. He also recently paid a visit to the Utah FORGE site in Milford! The U has the ability to replicate some of CMU’s successes, as well as build on our own. Continued innovation will also open doors to many further opportunities. As Utah FORGE works to make enhanced geothermal systems commercially viable, who knows what might become possible down the road?

The University of Utah will remain an institution that favors progress and innovation for many years to come. The DOE’s and the U’s faith in geothermal energy is not misplaced, but only heading toward exciting new heights. With enhanced geothermal systems on the horizon, the future looks especially bright.

At the Core of Utah FORGE – Engaging Students Through Song

The Utah FORGE Geothermal Song Parody Contest — Engaging Students Through Song

By Sarah Buening (UofU) June 20, 2023

A few years back, the Utah FORGE team became aware of a former middle school science teacher, Tom McFadden, who created song parody videos to teach students about scientific facts, terms and concepts. With his inspiration in mind, the Utah FORGE geothermal song parody contest was born. In this contest, we challenge students from various schools to write and perform original lyrics to a well-known song. Said parodies must include information about geothermal energy and use some related vocabulary words.

The contest, which aims to creatively engage and educate students, has achieved great success. This year, not only did the students benefit from their learning and engagement, but they received recognition and prizes courtesy of Enel Green Power. The geothermal song parody contest provides a creative outlet for students to relieve potential eco-anxiety, have some fun and ultimately, learn more about geothermal energy!

Eco-Anxiety in the Younger Generation

Students of this generation recognize that climate change is a daunting reality. Born into an era of global warming induced eco-anxiety and conflict, many young people experience a toll on their mental health. One survey revealed that 60% of young participants expressed feeling very or extremely worried about climate change, with 45% saying that those worries impacted their daily lives.

It’s obvious that young people recognize the urgency of adopting renewable energy infrastructure better than anyone. While they’re eager to do what they can, that task can seem daunting or even impossible at times. Learning about sustainable alternatives to current technologies, however, can help empower students to advocate for or pursue careers in the renewable energy sector. This may help to counteract feelings of powerlessness. Students need to see that research is current and ongoing to help improve the efficiency of renewable technologies, and Utah FORGE provides a tangible representation of that.

Furthermore, creative outlets work as effective stress relievers and help to optimize learning. While educational systems have largely prioritized STEM funding and research, failing to include artistic expression within that education would be a mistake. Not only do aesthetic experiences correlate to broad improvements in emotional states and physical and psychological well-being, but participation in the arts can lead to higher levels of civic engagement and social tolerance. In response to these benefits, many are pushing for the introduction of arts into the STEM movement. By turning STEM into STEAM, we can incorporate creative thinking into STEM teachings. Like seen in this contest, that simple change can offer students a refreshing new way to look at the energy problems around them.

Student Submissions and Winners

As song submissions shuffled in, each student’s spunk and creativity was put on clear display. We at Utah FORGE were happy to see the students enjoying the contest and having fun working together with their groups. Teachers agreed, citing how engaged their students became when learning through this medium.

Winners of 2023 Song Parody Contest: Allie Willden & Alexia Joseph from Beaver High School

The winners of this year's contest, students Allie Willden and Alexia Joseph from Beaver High School, parodied the song “You Belong With Me” by Taylor Swift — including remakes of popular chorus lyrics like “Why can’t you see - heat beneath your feet. Thermal energy.” We also enjoyed the line, “Did you know that the earth is a geothermal battery with vast geothermal resources? And it has enough power that could light up this whole town.” The runner-up team from Beaver High School as well, included students Brylee Sorenson, Drake Blackner, Jerzee Beaumont, Lily Wright and Marli Wheatley. They also used Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” to sing of how geothermal energy is “inexhaustible, we can never use it all up.”

The winning group from Milford High School — students Lydia George, Renata Gomez, Kenadee Carney and Sunday Campbell — used the song “Gorgeous” by Kanye West to call geothermal the “coolest way to create energy,” because “it’s reliable, renewable and always available.” Winners from Elk Meadows — Brighton Peterson, Chloe Ballentine, Haylie Stokes, Layla Wakley and Makayla Evans — transformed the song “Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane into their remake, “Somewhere Only Heat Flows.” Taelyn Marshall, Ayden Harris, Kailee Coombs, Kolter Marshall and Chloe Marshall from Minersville, as well as Isaac Gessel from Hidden Valley, also earned honorable mentions for their performances.

Allie Willden & Alexia Joseph from Beaver High School

Rest assured, the lyrics are even more enjoyable when performed. But they each demonstrate an attitude that we want to cultivate in today’s young people. That is, to learn about and bolster the solutions that we have available to us. Geothermal energy represents a promising solution to some of the worries plaguing young students and adults alike. We’re glad to see students embrace learning and fun in the same effort and only hope to foster more of it in the future.

Great job to all of this year’s song parody contest participants!

Watch the Winning Song Parody Video

Press Release: Drilling of the Production Well Begins

Utah FORGE Drills Geothermal Production Well.

  • Second deep deviated well in doublet pair.
  • A highly deviated well drilled in hard, hot crystalline granite – will mirror previously drilled injection well.
  • Total length of the well will be approximately 10,700 feet.


SALT LAKE CITY, UT., 26 April, 2023 - The Utah Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy (FORGE), funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, is excited to announce that the drilling of its second highly deviated deep well has commenced. This second well will serve as the production well of a two well doublet, and will mirror the existing injection well, which was drilled between October 2020 and February 2021. The new well will be located approximately 300 feet from the injection well.

Like the injection well, the upper part of the well will be drilled vertically through approximately 4,550 feet of sediments at which point it will penetrate into hard crystalline granite. At about 5,600 feet, the well will be gradually steered at a 5-degree angle for each 100 feet until it reaches an inclination of 65 degrees from its vertical point. The total length of the well will be approximately 10,700 feet with the “toe” – or the end of the well – reaching a vertical depth of 8,265 feet. The temperature at this depth will be 440 degrees F.

“This is a crucial next step in the Utah FORGE project’s goal of de-risking the tools and technologies required for making Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) technologies commercially viable” said Dr. Joseph Moore, and Principal Investigator of Utah FORGE. “This new well will serve as the production well. In the future, water will be pumped into the injection well, travel through the reservoir of tiny fractures that we previously opened, absorb the heat from the hard, hot crystalline granite, and then be pumped up through this new production well to the surface. This will help us capture the enormous energy potential beneath our feet and bring low cost, environmentally green, and renewable energy across the United States.”

Once the well is completed, a series of tests will be run to continue facilitating the development of the EGS reservoir and its long-term connectivity. Additional tests will also include determining the stress conditions through short-term injection experiments, during which microseismicity will be carefully monitored.

About Utah FORGE: The Utah FORGE project is managed by the Energy & Geoscience Institute at the University of Utah. Funding for the project is provided by the U.S. Department of Energy. The FORGE site is located near the town of Milford in Beaver County, Utah, on the western flank of the Mineral Mountains. Near term goals are aimed at perfecting drilling, stimulation, injection-production, and subsurface imaging technologies required to establish and sustain continuous fluid flow and energy transfer from an EGS reservoir. For more information, please visit our website at


Media Contact: Christopher Katis

Media Kit

Did You Know … Europe’s Largest Banana Producer Is Not Who You Think?

Did you know .... Europe's largest banana producer is not who you think?

One of the northernmost countries in the world is not the first place that comes to mind when you think about bananas. This tropical fruit is commonly associated with places near the equator: warm, temperate climates. However, thanks to greenhouses powered by geothermal energy, Icelanders are proving that delicious bananas can be grown anywhere.

The volcanic springs in the area provide the heat to maintain warm temperatures in the greenhouses for bananas to grow. (Photo from Kasper Friis)

Due to cold climate and limited sunlight, it would be impossible to grow bananas in this environment, if attempted outdoors. So, they thrive in temperature-controlled, artificially lit greenhouses that provide them with year-round favorable conditions.

Iceland is known for its natural geothermal activity. The locals have been using the heat for many years, ever since the Vikings settled in the country in the 9th century. Originally just used for bathing and washing clothes, as technology advanced, Icelanders continued to find new ways to use the heat, including heating homes, pools, and greenhouses. In fact, one of the major greenhouse plantations is located in Hveragerði, which means “hot springs garden”.

Bananas aren’t the only warm-weather plant found growing in the land of fire and ice. Researchers have successfully attempted to produce many other plants on the island as well, including tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, coffee, cocoa, and avocados.

While these bananas are not commercially viable to grow and sell, the farmers keep producing them as a hobby. Incidentally, there may be other significant benefits to having isolated banana farms since the bananas grown there are not susceptible to Panama Disease. The disease is caused by a fungus that is impacting the yellow fruit all over the world. This isolation could help save certain types of bananas from diseases that could wipe them out.

The bananas grown in Hveragerði and other geothermal plantations around Iceland make the country the largest producer of bananas in Europe. Although the Spanish territory of the Canary Islands grows more bananas, they’re technically a part of Africa, leaving Iceland to take the top spot. Europe in general is too far north to grow many warm-weather crops, but thanks to geothermal developments, Iceland is proving that nothing is impossible.


At the Core of Utah FORGE – Expanding Geothermal Literacy

Expanding Geothermal Literacy - Fostering the Scientists of Tomorrow.

By Sarah Buening (UofU) March 30, 2023

In November 2022 and February 2023, the Utah FORGE outreach team visited three elementary schools in Beaver County — Belknap Elementary, Milford Elementary and Minersville Elementary — to introduce a geothermal poster contest to fifth and sixth graders. After being taught basic geothermal concepts and participating in hands-on science activities,  the students were asked to make posters including artwork and a few short paragraphs explaining an aspect of geothermal energy. Winners and runners-up were selected from each school and awarded prizes courtesy of Enel Green Power, with winners getting recognized in their classes and in the local newspaper.

For young students like these, becoming energy literate is particularly important. The average child born today will need to emit about eight times less carbon dioxide than their grandparents to comply with Paris Climate Agreement goals. With President Biden’s commitment to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, changes to our energy portfolio are inevitable. As energy needs evolve, today’s young people will witness and become responsible for overseeing drastic changes in infrastructure. Any optimized clean energy palette should include geothermal as a viable energy source. Equipping young people with a greater understanding of alternate energy resources will better prepare them for the changes to come and, as this contest showed, really excite them!

Fueling Student Interests

Since the contest’s conclusion, teachers and students alike have already asked the Utah FORGE team if it will be repeated next year. One teacher remarked that they had, “never seen the students so engaged for something like this before.” The contest’s success reflects that young people are receptive to and interested in having this type of knowledge. Students sparked interest in geothermal for a number of reasons, with many posters citing that near their home in Beaver County, three geothermal power plants produce enough energy for approximately 66,000 homes. Some of these students have parents working at the Utah FORGE or other geothermal sites, making it a personal and proximal issue for them.

Even at their young ages, students did a remarkable job comparing and contrasting the benefits of one form of energy versus another. Many spoke about how geothermal can use any type of water to operate and that it’s clean for the atmosphere because geothermal power plants don’t cause pollution — or as Brandon at Belknap Elementary put it, geothermal doesn’t use a “motor that puts dirty air into the air.” They also referenced geothermal energy’s benefit of constant availability, since it doesn’t have to rely on variable inputs like wind or sun. Whitlee from Milford Elementary remarked that, “Geothermal energy works 24/7 even when the sun is not shining and the wind isn’t blowing.”

Students also marveled at the history and unique uses of the earth’s heat. Humans have utilized heat from the earth for at least 10,000 years, and as Delaney at Belknap Elementary reported, cultures like the “Ancient Romans, Chinese and Greeks used [hot spring] water for therapeutic bathing,” as well as for “cleaning, warmth and cooking.” They recognized that these practices continue today, in tandem with newer geothermal applications like heating greenhouses to grow flowers and produce. Finley from Milford Elementary also noted that industrial geothermal energy can be used to pasteurize milk and dehydrate food.

Student fascination extended even beyond humankind, as some researched the ways in which other animals have adapted to use geothermal heat for their species’ growth and evolution. To several students’ excitement, snow monkeys soak in hot springs to warm and relax themselves.

Geothermal energy is the heat beneath our feet, and especially to the young imagination, that’s pretty cool. It’s important that we nourish the excitement young people have for this technology because their natural curiosity can fuel the creation of future climate leaders, activists and engineers. Students like Lacey from Belknap Elementary know that, “The ground below your own backyard or local school has enough heat to control the climate in your home or other buildings in the community.” Going forward, students like her should receive no shortage of opportunities to help recognize geothermal’s full potential as part of the country’s energy portfolio.

Realizing Geothermal Energy Potential

As of 2021, about 40% of all carbon dioxide pollution came from fossil-fuel burning power plants, and the U.S. relied on fossil fuels — petroleum, natural gas and coal — for 79% of its primary energy production. Luckily, renewable energy is on the rise. In 2019, for the first time since before 1885, U.S. annual energy consumption from renewable sources surpassed coal usage. Still, most of this growth comes from solar and wind. Despite the U.S. becoming the leading producer of geothermal energy in the world, only 2% of its renewable energy production currently comes from geothermal sources. However, it has the potential to serve us well beyond that capacity.

Geothermal energy has the potential to supply 10% of today’s energy needs. The Western U.S., including Utah, holds the best potential for geothermal electricity production in the nation. As energy demands rise and the energy landscape changes, it becomes more important than ever to utilize that energy. Improved education and outreach play a paramount role in that mission. So, for young people growing up in the west, a familiarization with geothermal energy is especially crucial.

Investing in renewable energy literacy will help today’s students prepare for the future, but it will also give them the opportunity to pursue their interests. We at Utah FORGE, for one, are happy to see students like those in Beaver County ready and willing to learn about all that geothermal energy has to offer.


Did You Know … the story of the snake, the fish, and the toad?

Did you know… the story of the 'hot' snake, the fish, and the toad?

Tucked away in different corners of the planet, there are animals with unique adaptations that allow them to thrive in some rather surprising environments. Despite the extreme conditions and challenges, certain species are even able to make hot waters their permanent home.

The Tibetan Hot-Spring Snake (photo Science)

Take for example the Tibetan Hot-Spring snake. This snake is exactly what it sounds like: a snake that lives in the hot springs of Tibet, high in the mountains, where the weather is very cold. Like other reptiles, snakes are ectothermic, or cold blooded, meaning they do not regulate their own body temperature and rely on the external environment to do so. Most reptiles will sunbathe or hide underground to stay warm, but the Tibetan Hot-Spring snake achieves the same outcome in a rather unusual way. By living in the warm waters of the natural hot springs occurring in the area, these amazing reptiles can stay heated year-round.

The Hot-Spring snake has a special adaptation found in their genome; a gene called EPAS1. This gene makes them much more sensitive to heat sources as compared to their close relatives, allowing them to seek out the hot water much more easily. They have been observed leaving hot springs to travel to rivers and colder lakes to feed on the fish and other small creatures living there, and then navigating back to the hot springs afterwards using their heat-seeking senses.

The Julimes pupfish (Wikipedia)

These snakes aren’t the only animals that are able to survive and thrive in hot waters - a small species of fish in Mexico can live in super-hot water up to 114 degrees Fahrenheit. The Julimes pupfish lives full-time in the area’s hot springs, earning it the title of “the world’s hottest fish.” These pupfish could be considered “extremophiles”, animals who are able to tolerate very harsh conditions. Imagine living your whole life hotter than the hottest hot tub!


Dixie Valley toad (photo Washington Post)

Finally, there is the Dixie Valley toad. This toad has specifically adapted to survive in the warm waters around the Dixie Valley in a remote area near Reno, Nevada. When it was discovered and described in 2017, it became the only new species of toad discovered in the US in nearly 50 years.

Most toads spend the colder months underground in burrows so that they don’t freeze along with the water around them. The Dixie Valley toad doesn’t burrow, instead it remains in the warm springs all winter long. The toads prefer the warm water over any other options for heat that may be available to them. It must work for them, since they have been thriving in the springs for thousands of years.

These animals are great examples of how even though conditions may be harsh and seemingly inhospitable, it’s good to remember the timeless words of Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park: “Life finds a way.”

Did You Know … you could have a swig of geothermal rum in the near future?

Did you know ... that you could have a swig of geothermal rum in the near future?

In Cornwall, United Kingdom, Matthew Clifford has big dreams to start up a rum distillery powered solely by the natural geothermal resources. Alcohol distillation takes up a lot of energy, so Clifford decided that he would attempt to power his idea with the heat from under the ground.

In the rum production process, energy is expended 24/7 and the need to keep everything temperature controlled can be extremely intensive over the long period of time that’s required to produce alcohol. Therefore, the Celsius Project had the idea to power the process with geothermal energy. Geothermal is available around the clock regardless of outdoor conditions or energy shortages, perfectly fitting the needs for distilling alcohol.

In Cornwall, the rocks under ground are hotter than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, which is why Clifford targeted that area for his project. The Celsius Project plans to use the heat from the “hot rocks” to heat the buildings needed for production and storage. They also have plans to use the “waste heat”, which is the by-product of turning the energy generated from the geothermal power into electricity. Their goal is to produce zero-carbon renewable power once the site is up and running.

Unfortunately, the project ran into a bit of a snag which has forced the owner to look for a different location. The original project site at the United Downs in Cornwall has been in disrepair for many years and has partially been used as a landfill. Although the plan was originally approved, the proposal received resistance when fans of stock car racing stepped in. A portion of United Downs is a raceway beloved by many racing fans in the area. The Cornwall Council stepped in and told Clifford he could not build the distillery there, despite already having received approval a few months prior.

Now, the Celsius Project is without a home. There has not been a new site chosen yet, and the project has moved into a smaller version of itself inside a handful of shipping containers, which are currently housed near Penryn. While a geothermal rum toast for New Year’s 2023 was unavailable, if Clifford is able to find a new location to permanently house the project and get it off the ground, there may be a chance ‘hot’ rum could be available for New Year’s Day, 2024.

We’ll drink to that!