Student’s environmental research aims to save the Earth

March 09, 2009

Rob Holthause, a senior Environmental Policy and Science major, is unabashedly certain that his research into geothermal heating and cooling could help radically reduce the college’s carbon dioxide emissions and potentially save the campus millions of dollars beginning in as few as five years from now.

“What I found was that the initial cost of switching the whole campus to geothermal heating and cooling systems would be approximately $12 million,” Holthause said in a recent interview. “That's only four years worth of the school's energy budget at $3.1 million per year, and since this would reduce our use of heat oil and electricity for cooling, it would basically cut our energy budget in half.”

By his estimate, that means installing a geothermal system campus-wide would pay for itself in as little as five to 10 years. Thereafter, the college would save about $1.6 million a year, he said.

“Even better, this one effort, if executed campus-wide, would reduce our carbon emissions by 20 percent,” Holthause said. “That's a huge number for this type of retrofit.”

At McDaniel, student research such as Holthause’s is more than academic.

College administrators are eager to incorporate the findings from such research into decisions that will affect the college, its faculty, students and staff, as well as the community at large, for years to come.

McDaniel College has committed to finding ways to measure and reduce its carbon footprint. The goal is to devise a plan this year for the college to be carbon-neutral.
The term “carbon neutral” refers to eliminating as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as one generates into it.

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases collect in the atmosphere, trapping heat from the sun and warming the Earth through a natural process called the greenhouse effect. Without this effect, the Earth’s temperature would be below freezing. But, if more and more carbon dioxide and other gases are pumped into the atmosphere – from factories, cars, trucks – the greenhouse effect is intensified, which can lead to global warming.

The Green Terra committee, which includes faculty, staff and students, was created after President Joan Develin Coley signed in May 2007 the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, a pledge to take a leadership role in addressing global warming.

Already, the installation of geothermal wells, which use the Earth’s thermal energy to heat and cool, at strategic areas around campus has generated energy efficiency and cost savings for the college, according to Physical Plant Director George Brenton.

For instance, Brenton estimates that, gauging from last June, the electric bills for the recently renovated Garden Apartments, now using geothermal energy, will be down 35 percent for the year.

Brenton, who is a member of the Green Terra committee, said student research into alternative energy sources like Holthause’s project is a valuable resource for the college. He said members of the committee must spread their time between Green Terra and their other work responsibilities, and it’s helpful to have the additional insight that comes out of the students’ work.

“The student research gives us a kick-start on what we have to do,” he said. “And it gets students involved in what we’re doing, which is important because that’s what we’re here for – the students."