White Paper: Rapid Geothermal District Heating Assessments in the Rural United States

By Nicholas Fry

Nicholas Fry is a student at the Iceland School for Energy. Nicholas used Comsof Heat to assess whether district heating networks are a viable alternative to traditional energy sources in remote areas in the USA. In this paper you can read his methodology and findings.

Where has your professional career taken you?

Before taking a crack at the energy industry, I was a government services provider. Some people fall into different interests and I was one of them. I found myself reading deeply about the water-energy nexus, geothermal energy, and thinking about how different home in Montana looked compared to work in populated Northern Virginia. Energy is an afterthought for most but in Montana it has real impacts on people’s lives and livelihoods. Mining for coal and timber kept families alive for many generations and times are changing. I felt like the opportunity to make a difference was presenting itself to me. I decided to investigate a geothermal energy transition in Montana because mining heat would leverage the skills that Montanans already have.

How did you end up doing studies on district heating networks?

Learning about geothermal energy in Iceland, where I chose to study, led me straight into district heating. I believe that over 90% of the country is covered by geothermal district heating. Every time I would take a trip out to the combined heat and power plant, I could see the massive district heating line winding its way to Reykjavik. Even rural farms have geothermal district heating. I was fascinated by the abundance but also the will of Icelanders to deliver sustainable heat to everyone. This is a place that does not suffer from energy poverty like many parts of the United States. Energy poverty is often about a lack of choice. District heating is one choice that I feel too few communities are considering as they make decarbonization plans in the United States. I want to change that.

“District heating is one choice that I feel too few communities are considering as they make decarbonization plans in the United States. I want to change that.”

Do you have a specific interest in this topic?

Certainly, my heart is in the rural communities where I grew up. I am also learning that rural is a relative term here. I grew up in a single-family log home built by my father of swamp moss and trees felled from the property. The nearest neighbors were counted in miles of distance. Maybe district heating will never make it to a place like that but there are plenty of sparse towns where district heating can work and can save people a lot of money. I know that Comsof Heat can make a difference for the urban dweller, and it is also powerful enough to make district heating work for almost any small community. If Comsof Heat can make a district network cost effective in a small town, there is really no reason that policymakers should not be considering it. Places dense enough to have a municipal water utility are probably just fine installing a district heating network.

“I know that Comsof Heat can make a difference for the urban dweller, and it is also powerful enough to make district heating work for almost any small community.”

What can people expect form your paper?

Geothermal surface manifestations, hot springs, are often near places people like to gather. I found that even low-temperature geothermal resources or moderate flow rates are feasible for district heating in nearby communities. Comsof Heat helps place the newest pipe materials, substations, and control systems in your district heating plan. What that really allowed me to do was take the next generation of district heating design to neighborhoods full of single-family homes in a Western town. Advanced utility optimization is not something people are typically providing to small towns, but it can be done in most municipal planning offices or through their consulting firms. Gathering my findings, I compared the levelized costs of heat to individual condensing furnaces and water heaters running on natural gas. District heating beat individual natural gas heating in every instance. Surprise!

Tell us the most notable conclusions of your paper

Use every strategy available to decrease costs for sparsely populated areas. Follow unpaved surfaces, avoid repaving, use twin pipe whenever you can, buy components in bulk, optimize your network dimensions with the most advanced software (hint: Comsof Heat), etc. The planner should ideally use the 2-layer modeling method that Comsof Heat specializes in. I found that this could save on overall pipe costs by quite a bit, especially for a place like Montana with big hydraulic heads – differences in elevation across the service area. A 2-layer build allows the designer to run a higher pressure on the transmission circuit while delivering a lower pressure across the network, decreasing overall pipe diameters. This largely confirms earlier work done by Comsof Heat and the University of Ghent.

What impression does Comsof Heat leave on you?

My focus was drawn to the energy intelligence that this software could provide policymakers. Presenting good evidence in an energy feasibility study can be hard without a proper medium of communication. In the case of district heating the visualizations in Comsof Heat can really fill a gap between an engineer, a modeler, and a policymaker. If you have a decision maker that wants to know more about district heating Comsof Heat makes it easy to express the potential using visualizations of multi-parameter simulations. Policymakers may find it easy to identify revenue districts that would be affected by the heat network, enabling public relations and interactions. Determining whether to proceed with exploration or implementation can become much easier using Comsof Heat. I personally feel like this software can be useful in the efforts to decarbonize building heat and I am consistently in amazement at their commitment to innovation.

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