Underground wells used to heat and cool four buildings at Montana State University have already reduced their energy use by 40%, so now MSU wants to spend $2.5 million to expand geothermal energy to the core of campus.

When the Montana Board of Regents meets in Bozeman next Thursday and Friday, MSU will seek permission to spend the money to design and build an energy system for the heart of campus.

“We’ve seen such great results from the geothermal wells and energy districts so far,” said Michael Becker, MSU spokesman. “With opportunities like this to save resources and energy, we’re very excited. It really is the direction MSU wants to be headed.”

Through geothermal wells and other energy-saving measures, the Bozeman campus reported that today it uses 19% less energy per square foot of building space than it did in 2007. The new systems also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Becker said.

Geothermal wells work by drilling down 500 to 700 feet into the ground, where the earth, acting as an insulator, keeps underground water at a relatively constant year-round temperature of 50 to 60 degrees. Pump systems can bring up that water to help warm MSU buildings in winter or inject extra heat back into the earth in summer.

In the past decade, MSU has been using geothermal wells to heat and cool Leon Johnson Hall, Jabs Hall, Tietz Hall and Willson Hall. The systems are connected in what MSU calls its North Campus energy district.

The new Norm Asbjornson Hall uses both geothermal wells and solar panels, which have cut its energy use roughly in half and won LEED platinum certification for having the highest level of energy efficiency. Geothermal wells were also drilled this fall in front of Roberts Hall to serve the new American Indian Hall, which is under construction.

Those systems will likely make the two newest buildings “the most energy efficient buildings on campus and possibly the region,” MSU reported.

Becker said he doesn’t know exactly where the new South Campus energy district would be located, but added there has been some exploration in the grassy Romney Oval. It is north of Romney Hall and adjacent to the Strand Union Building and Renne Library.

Using geothermal wells to replace traditional heating and air conditioning mechanical systems would avoid having “costly, noisy and high-maintenance” cooling equipment in the center of campus, where it could detract from the campus environment, MSU reported.

The university plans to do maintenance work in the core of campus to improve existing utilities and landscaping, so campus planners want to drill and build the geothermal system at the same time to avoid disrupting the central area as much as possible.

The $2.5 million to pay for the new geothermal system wouldn’t come from the MSU general fund that depends on state taxpayers and student tuition, Becker said. Rather the money may come from maintenance accounts, he said, such as money paid by dorms, dining halls and other moneymaking auxiliary enterprises to pay for building maintenance.

Also at the regents meeting, the University of Montana will seek approval to hire an energy service company, McKinstry Essention Inc., to investigate the possibility of generating power from the Missoula campus’s steam heating plant. The project, if it seems feasible, might ultimately cost about $15 million. A preliminary study found it could save up to $1.5 million a year.

UM reports it’s also working on a campus energy master plan with a goal of reducing campus energy consumption by 20%.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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