What ‘The Blind Side,’ Utah, and Geothermal Technologies Have in Common

What ‘The Blind Side,’ Utah, and Geothermal Technologies Have in Common

No, it isn’t the setup to a funny joke. There truly is a correlation between the three. And, they help to broaden the knowledge of geothermal technologies throughout the county. So, let’s take a deeper dive into the mystery.

‘The Blind Side’ and the University of Tennessee’s ‘Secret’

If you’ve ever seen the movie, “The Blind Side,” starring Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, and Kathy Bates, it is likely you’ve heard the story of famed-NFL star Michael Oher. A down-on-his-luck homeless boy from the “wrong side of the tracks” finds a caring heart in a well-to-do southern family who takes him in (along with their own teen daughter and young son). As Michael’ interests start to form around the game of football, he spends serious time debating where he’ll go for college, as he becomes an adopted member of the Tuohy Family.

It’s all based on a true story, following the life and times of Oher, who would later play professionally for the Baltimore Ravens as a 2009 First-Round Draft Pick. One of the controversial and even investigated issues of his life’s story happens to be around that choice of colleges. Oher ends up selecting Ole Miss, the alma mater of both Touhy adults, as well as his tutor (all played by the aforementioned celebrities). When joking about his selection, “Miss Sue” (played by Bates) jokes that Oher won’t want to try to play for the University of Tennessee (a coincidental sports rival of Ole Miss) because they keep dead bodies under the football field there.

“Arms and legs and hands, from hospitals and medical schools,” says Miss Sue to a still-deciding Oher. “And do you know where they store ’em? Right underneath the football field. So while it’s fine and dandy to have 100,000 fans cheering for you, the bodies you should be worried about are the ones right under the turf.”

She wasn’t lying. Well, not exactly. The Volunteers of Tennessee do use Neyland Stadium to do scientific research for law enforcement. Over 1,000 bodies are tested in the football stadium, all donated to science. The school’s Forensic Anthropology Center is also home to “The Body Farm,” where they test bodies in various stages and methods of decomposition. But, the stadium is where the remains are cleaned and stored, as tests are run to develop the latest in crime scene investigation technology.

What’s Under the University of Utah’s Fields?

If you’re wondering what this all has to do with geothermal energy, stick with us. I promise, they’re related. It turns out, the University of Tennessee and its perhaps unusual-to-some practices for storing centers for learning under athletic fields isn’t alone in its thinking. Boston College built its Alumni Stadium on top of a reservoir, which, after kicking too many punts into the lake, was years later filled in during upgrades. Worcester Polytechnic Institute put an entire 534-car parking garage under its playing field, which includes 170,000 square feet of turf for softball, baseball, field hockey, football, and men’s and women’s soccer. The California Golden Bears play on a field right over the Hayward Fault, the second-most-dangerous and likely fault to have a seismic disaster in the near future.

But, it is what was placed under the University of Utah’s soccer field that is of most interest to geothermal experts and novices alike. John Palo, who oversees the building structures at the college, says that the geothermal energy moving through heat pumps, fed by geothermal wells, help to condition the air year-round. And, where are those wells pumping from? Wells placed under the school’s soccer field!

Palo says the college pays nearly nothing for heating and cooling since its installation. 

“It’s energy efficient, it’s good for the climate, and it saves money. What’s not to like?” Palo says to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (OEERE) during a Sept. 14, 2023 interview. The University of Utah is leading a research team that is working to extend this energy production nationwide at the nearby Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy (FORGE).

Palo says that these additions to the college’s infrastructure are a “game-changer.” He’s even calculated the school’s savings to prove the benefits. Palo ran tests to see how much energy a building used to move water through the pipes in the geothermal field. This water movement is used to absorb or deposit heat, depending on the weather’s temperatures above. He then compared those figures to the energy he got back for heating or cooling a building.

“I just started laughing,” he told the OEERE of his results. “At one point, I was getting 1,390 kilowatt-hours (kwh) of geothermal energy out of the ground while spending 16 kilowatts to run the pump. I’m purchasing the equivalent of 31,000 kwh a year of natural gas energy to heat my home and run hot water. The amount of energy I’m using from natural gas is equivalent to running three hair dryers for 17.5 hours every day, all year long. [Based on what I’m seeing from the University of Utah heat pumps], I could replace that by running one hair dryer for 30 minutes a day if I had low-temp geothermal in my backyard.”

John Palo was awarded the Clean Energy Champion award from the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy in September of 2023 for his work at the University of Utah.

Palo isn’t alone. A 2011 report by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) states that 160 campuses across 42 different states also used geothermal energy sources to provide savings on their utility bills. By 2020, 40 colleges and universities reported they were obtaining 100 percent or more of their electricity from renewable energy sources! 

Scaling the capabilities shown at a university level is at the utmost of Palo’s mind. Palo, who was awarded the OEERE’s Clean Energy Champion award in 2023, says housing developments could add this tech and it would only cost homebuyers a few thousand more at purchase. 

“But they could have heat for approximately 98% lower costs for the next 50 years while reducing their home’s fossil fuel use to zero,” says Palo in his award interview.

Palo said he only has one question left for the world when it comes to taking geothermal to every house and building in the United States.

“What are we waiting for?” he asks.

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