Geothermal energy is on its way to Chicago’s South Side

Naomi Davis won’t lose her faith in the earth. At a recent community meeting in Chicago’s South Side she wanted to drive the point home — that the city’s Black community will not be left out of the new, emerging green economy. 

To do it, she’s betting on energy trapped deep below the surface of the earth known as geothermal, which could be an answer to heating and cooling homes more efficiently and a path to building decarbonization. 

Davis heads Chicago’s Blacks in Green, an environmental justice group which has dedicated the past 17 years to figuring out the blueprint for self-sustaining, climate-resilient Black communities everywhere. 

“We’re hit first and worst, resourced least and last, and we contribute the least to global warming,” said Davis. 

Naomi Davis speaks at a South Side Chicago meeting about geothermal power.
David McDuffie

Last year the group won the support of the Biden administration with the Environmental Protection Agency awarding a five-year $10 million grant. The money will enable Blacks in Green to work with other environmental justice communities in the Midwest to take advantage of historic funding made available through the Inflation Reduction Act. 

The Chicago organization is already beginning to work on sustainability projects in Cleveland.

Back home, Davis is focused on carbon-free energy: how to generate it, how to make it affordable, and how to get it out of the ground. Her aim is to ensure that her community won’t be left behind as the rest of the city becomes sustainable.

“We’re not going to be the ones left on the gas bills with the spiraling costs and the technology that is continuing to pollute us,” she said, adding for emphasis, “No.”

In 2023, Blacks in Green was one of 11 community partners across the country chosen by the U.S. Department of Energy to design and develop a community geothermal heating and cooling district. That will mean building out a shared geothermal network across four city blocks containing more than 100 multi-family and single-family homes.

U.S. Department of Energy

The goal is to decarbonize buildings and reduce energy costs for families. To get there, Blacks in Green received nearly $750,000 to kick off the initial phase of the pilot, which includes hosting community meetings and determining household needs.

Davis said Chicago’s West Woodlawn neighborhood — located about 9 miles south of the city’s downtown — is ready to experiment with geothermal energy. 

But at the Blacks in Green community meeting, neighbors like Debra Gay and her mother Retta Ford have questions about what exactly it’ll take to bring geothermal energy to the South Side. 

“Given that our city lots are so tightly spaced, how would you do that for an existing home and will that create some disruption?” asked Gay. 

Ford, Gay’s mother, worried whether the project could destabilize the foundation of older homes. 

two women in sweaters sit and pose for a photo smiling
Debra Gay, right, and her mother Retta Ford, left, attend a community meeting about geothermal power in Chicago’s South Side. Grist / JuanPablo Ramirez-Franco

Not necessarily, according to Andrew Barbeau, president of the Accelerate Group, a clean energy consulting firm working alongside Blacks in Green to design and deploy the geothermal pilot project. 

The key to geothermal in these old neighborhoods: the alleys.

“Out in front, you got water, you got gas, you got sewer, and other things are alleys,” Barbeau said. “There’s nothing under that ground.”

The plan is to leverage the earth underneath the alleys behind homes and businesses to build out a community geothermal system. That will mean a series of deep, 400-foot holes that pipe water into the ground, absorb the temperature of the earth, and bring it back up to the surface to make use of it.

By building the community heating system beneath the alleys, the project sidesteps the major challenge that major American cities like Chicago face: lack of open, workable space. Once installed, buildings along the alleyway can connect to the underground heating system at their own convenience. 

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This all works because the earth functions as a kind of thermal battery. The sun beats down on the earth, and it absorbs some of that energy. So much so that between 20 and 40 feet below the surface of the earth, the temperature hovers consistently around 12.8 degrees C (55 degrees F) year round, according to Andrew Stumpf, a geologist with the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

“So you circulate water in a pipe, and you exchange the heat from the pipe into the water, and you’re pulling that temperature out,” Stumpf said. 

Experts call geothermal energy a nearly inexhaustible energy source, and it isn’t limited to just Chicago. It can be brought online almost anywhere. Back in 2019, the DOE released a study charting the path to massively scaling geothermal across the country. It found significant economic opportunity for geothermal district systems throughout the Midwest and Northeast, with Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania leading the pack.

With 23 geothermal districts across the country, the U.S. lags behind Europe, where nearly 400 are in operation. 

While the DOE is investing in geothermal districts which rely on the earth’s near surface temperatures, they’re also betting big on larger-scale enhanced geothermal systems, which typically require drilling miles underground. Enhanced geothermal works by pumping fluid deep into the earth, which is then recovered as steam and put to work to generate electricity.

Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced $60 million for three enhanced geothermal system pilots in California, Oregon, and Utah. An analysis from the DOE last year found that by advancing enhanced geothermal, the U.S. could be on track to generating 90 gigawatts of electricity, or enough to power 65 million homes by 2050.

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Geothermal in West Woodlawn is a long way out. Once the community engagement phase wraps up, Blacks in Green will have the opportunity to be selected for up to $4 million in grants to actually go out and build the system. 

But there are still major questions left. Who owns the geothermal network? Who decides the rates? West Woodlawn could develop public benefit corporations or local co-ops that share benefits with residents. 

The hope isn’t just to break ground on geothermal but explore new ownership models that center equity along the way. 

Back at the Blacks in Green meeting, resident Rosazlia Grillier said she thinks a lot about what people sacrifice when they’re unable to pay their energy bills. She said the more that people know about geothermal, the more likely they’ll be on board.

“Prices around energy costs are skyrocketing,” said Grillier. “And so we can either just complain about it, or we can educate ourselves about it and make the change that we know needs to happen.” 


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