Beaufort military bases could be sites of energy-storage experiment

Two Beaufort military bases are being considered for a four-year pilot program researchers say could help slim down the Defense Department's $3.5 billion yearly energy bill.

Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort and Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island are two of a handful of bases identified by two Clemson environmental engineers are possible sites for an experimental underground energy-storage facility. Bases in California and Rhode Island also are being considered, according to university officials.

Ron Falta and Fred Molz received a $991,000 grant from the Defense Department earlier this year to test their idea, which stores "waste" energy -- such as the heat produced by power plants and low-cost solar panels -- in underground heat exchangers and water wells.

"That converts the ground into a type of thermal battery," Molz said. "If we had access to an intermittent heat source, such as solar heating ... we could simply put the heat into the ground whenever it is available, similar to the way a battery can be charged at any time."

Unlike conventional geothermal heat pumps, which utilizes the Earth's ambient temperature to heat and cool buildings, the two Clemson engineers say they can harvest and store inexpensive or free sources of energy to create artificially hot or cold zones in the ground.

According to their research proposal, Falta and Molz plan to retrofit a 10,000- to 20,000-square foot building with subsurface hot and cold cells, an external heat source such as solar panels, and modify the building's HVAC system to accommodate a geothermal heat pump. The pump will be used to move hot and cold water to and from the cells, the proposal said.

If they are successful, researchers hope to achieve a 50 percent or greater energy savings over four years and reduce the system's carbon footprint by 70 percent compared to a conventional HVAC system.

Falta and Molz are expected to decide on a site for their project later this year, and begin testing the system in March, according to the proposal.