The Buck Institute in Novato has a reputation for breaking new ground in science, but these days, they're breaking ground outside their labs as well. Crews are drilling 400 feet into the earth for what will become a massive geothermal heating and cooling system. Ralph O'Rear is overseeing the project.
"The big idea behind the geothermal exchange field is to use the constant temperature of the earth to cool buildings," said O'Rear.
Or it can help heat them. Below ground temperatures stay around 61 degrees in the mild Marin County climate.
"That's why it can be a source of heating and cooling because it's a predictable temperature," said O'Rear. "And what you do with that water can have predictable outcomes."
After digging more than 300 holes and trenches, crews lay in miles of tubing that will carry water from the heating and air-conditioning system through a vast underground maze. The system can cool hot water down by dissipating heat, or raise the temperature of colder water using the earth's ambient warmth. All the water then comes back into the building around the same 61 degree ground temperature.
"And you only have to take that 61-degree water to get to the comfort zone of 68 to 72," said O'Rear.
That means that the heating and air conditioning systems that use the water have far less work to do and require less energy. Engineers retrofitted some units and added more efficient heat exchangers to take advantage of the thermal system.
Even with the $4 million plus price tag, vice president of finance, Nancy Derr, expects the geothermal system to pay for itself.
"It will, over a period of seven years is what our analysis has shown. We'll see a considerable reduction beginning year one, upwards of $4 million a year," said Derr.
And it may not be the last investment the Buck makes. When the system is up and running, the institute plans to examine various systems -- including solar -- to generate their electricity on site.
"Geothermal is only the first step. I think we'd certainly be interested in solar," said Derr.
It would ultimately turn a lab that's a leader in medical science into a leader in environmental science as well.
Engineers say the project is also saving thousands of gallons of water. That's because the closed system eliminates the massive evaporation that was part of the old heating and cooling system.
Written and produced by Tim Didion