HCC links farmers to new cooling process
A substantial grant given to Haywood Community College will soon show farmers how to look below the earth’s surface for energy-efficient options on the farm.
The $50,000 grant from the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services will allow HCC to create a geothermal chilling facility and explore how it can benefit local farmers.
John Mark Roberts, an instructor in building construction technology at HCC, was a key player in developing the idea for the project that garnered the grant money.
“This grant is a link between agriculture and energy efficiency,” Roberts said.
The project will involve building a geothermal chilling unit at the Mountain Research Station in Waynesville to demonstrate the benefits of cooling produce as soon as it’s picked from the field.
Geothermal energy is growing in popularity as a heating and cooling source for homes and buildings.
Here’s how it works: a piping system is installed about 5 feet under the surface of the earth, filled with water and attached to a pump. The water circulates underground and absorbs the temperature of the earth, either heating it in the winter or cooling it in the summer.
Because the earth’s core temperature is about 54 degrees year-round, the temperature below the surface is cooler than the summer heat.
“Instead of changing the air temperature from 90 degrees to 56 degrees, we’re changing the temperature of the earth, so it’s going from 58 degrees to 56 degrees,” Roberts said. “That’s how it’s more energy efficient.”
With this project, HCC is becoming a leader in geothermal training for students as well as farmers who could use the system for their crops.
“All farmers in western North Carolina harvest their crops during the hottest months of the year,” Roberts said.
The 90-plus degree summer heat can lead to food spoiling quickly, that’s why refrigeration can be vital for farmers.
Chilling products such as cabbage, apples, berries, tomatoes and more as soon as they’re harvested would make the product last longer. In turn, that could give farmers more time to sell their food before it goes bad.
“It extends the marketable window of the produce,” Roberts said.
One condition of the grant is to display the geothermal unit to the community, particularly farmers who could benefit from a large-scale and energy efficient cooling system.
A farm asset
The project will also be an asset to programs at the Mountain Research Station, said Kaleb Rathbone, research operations manager at the test farm.
“That’s been a need at the station for quite some time, we just weren’t able to do it money-wise,” he said.
The geothermal unit will be built into an existing 18-by-15-foot room at the station where produce and other farm commodities can be stored and cooled as soon as they’re harvested.
Geothermal cooling will be beneficial for field products such as Christmas and Hemlock tree seedlings and the broccoli that is currently being grown for a large-scale project.
“With broccoli, you’ve got to take the field heat out of it,” Rathbone said. “Commercial growers put it on ice immediately. This is just an alternative cooling process.”
The engineers at Reece, Noland & McElrath, Inc. will be installing the system at the Test Farm. The company has extensive experience installing large-scale geothermal heating and cooling systems in government buildings and schools like the new Bethel Elementary School.
Steve Kaufman, principal engineer of the company, said this project will be much smaller in comparison to their usual work, as it will be used as a refrigeration unit rather than comfort heating a large building.
Schools with geothermal units have experienced 30 to 40 percent reduction of energy costs with a 5 to 7 year payback, Kaufman said. But it’s unclear what the results could be for farmers. That’s part of the goal of the grant, to explore the economic feasibility for farmers to use geothermal chilling.
The cost of the equipment and running the system will be compared to how much farmers currently spend on cooling systems and then figure out what the payback would be.
"It does certainly cost you more up front to put the system in," Kaufman said, adding that the payoff over the following years could make it all worth it.
"This is a very sustainable system so I would imagine a lot of farmers that are environmentally conscious would be interested," he said.
This project will help instructors at HCC teach construction students about geothermal energy as another option for heating, vent and air conditioning (HVAC).
“We’re teaching our students what could become mainstream later,” Roberts said.
Other conditions of the grant require HCC to create a website for the project and develop classes to enhance community education of geothermal heating and cooling. A Basics of Geothermal Technology course will be offered this fall and a certification course will be offered in the spring. For more information, contact Roberts at 627-4636.