A rendering of the planned the University of Connecticut residence hall.
A rendering of the planned the University of Connecticut residence hall. Credit: Courtesy

A new residence hall planned for the University of Connecticut marks the beginning of the campus’ transition from gas-fired heating and cooling.

The new complex, consisting of three connected buildings with 258 apartments, will rely on hydrogen-powered fuel cells for most of its electricity, and geothermal wells for heating and cooling. It’s expected to be the first of several projects that aim to phase out the campus’ central utility plant.

“This is the beginning of a global strategy to try and reduce carbon emissions beyond what we’ve been able to do so far through energy conservation and efficiency measures,” said Robert Corbett, executive director of university planning, design and construction.

The school installed a natural gas-fired cogeneration facility in 2006 that was considered state-of-the-art at the time. It supplies more than 90% of the campus’ electricity, heating and cooling and is projected to have a useful life up to 2040.

While the university has more than two dozen highly efficient, LEED-certified buildings and has undergone a comprehensive LED lighting retrofit, “we are a laggard in incorporating renewables into our energy portfolio,” said Patrick McKee, senior sustainability program manager in the office of sustainability.

Geothermal systems utilize the earth, through an underground piping system, to act as a heat sink in the summer and a heat source in the winter. They don’t require the use of fossil fuels or a lot of electricity.

The location of the planned residence hall on the southern end of campus is fairly remote from the central utility plant. The 16-acre property is large enough to accommodate an initial 180 geothermal wells going down to a depth of 800 feet, Mr. Corbett said.

“The well field and the pumping stations will really be a centralized energy plant,” he said. “There will eventually be about 500 wells in that vicinity.”

The residence hall will be powered by a 1-megawatt fuel cell, though a second one may be added later. Because a fuel cell supplies power around the clock, it will be connected to a network so that when the residence hall isn’t using all its electricity it can be utilized elsewhere, Corbett said.

The complex will also be connected to the central utility plant so that there is a backup source of power when the fuel cell needs to be serviced. It will be built to accommodate a rooftop solar array in the future, a system that might be used for heating water, Corbett said.

The complex will be built in conformance with LEED Gold standards, a set of building guidelines intended to maximize conservation and efficiency, minimize waste and emissions, and ensure a healthy indoor living environment.

The plan is to get some experience in geothermal by gradually connecting the southern end of campus, which has another dozen buildings, to the geothermal well system, and disconnecting from the utility plant.

Eventually, perhaps over the next eight to 12 years, the rest of campus will be converted. Converting the whole campus, with some 400 buildings, would require 10,000 wells and extensive retrofitting of mechanical equipment, Corbett said.

McKee noted that “we do have a ton of steam lines underneath the ground. If we could repurpose that existing infrastructure, that would cut some of the costs.”

UConn President Radenka Maric cited the importance of deploying clean energy technologies on campus last week as she announced an accelerated target to make the university carbon neutral by 2030. She also mentioned carbon-capture technologies that could reduce CO2 emissions at the central cogeneration facility.

A full Sustainability Action Plan will be released in the spring.

To date, UConn has cut greenhouse gas emissions by 45% below the 2001 benchmark year, even while nearly doubling the size of its campus, according to the statement from Maric.

A new science building scheduled for completion later this year will be partially powered by a 520-kilowatt solar system, the first major solar array on campus.

Construction on the residence hall is expected to begin next summer.

Lisa is a longtime journalist and native New Englander based in Connecticut. She writes regularly about housing, development and business for the New York Times. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, CNBC.com, Next City and many other publications. She is the author of "Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice and Real Estate." Lisa covers New England.