A recent Buffalo News editorial showed the Editorial Board’s support for an upcoming fundraiser for Kleinhans Music Hall. According to the News, among the reasons for the fundraiser is to replace a boiler that supplies heat for the building and is at the end of its lifespan. That brought out a number of letters to the editor calling for the City of Buffalo to plan for the electrified future and convert the facility’s climate control needs to a geothermal system. In a city that has seen its share of bold ideas that never get off the drawing table, is this just another pie in the sky idea? Or should we be taking this idea seriously?
The system that they are advocating for is also called a Ground-Sourced Heat Pump system. It takes advantage of the naturally occurring difference between the above-ground air temperature and the subsurface soil temperature to transfer heat. The system uses a series of pipes which are buried underground. Fluids are pumped through the system that release heat from a building to the earth during the summer and absorb heat from the ground during the winter. A heat exchanger transfers the heat to the building’s heating system.
The City of Buffalo has previously looked forward and chosen a different path for its heating and cooling needs. In its landmark City Hall, the city leaders approved the Art Deco plans of architect John Wade. Planned and built during the Great Depression, he included in his design a passive air conditioning system, with vents capturing the winds off Lake Erie, funneled to the basement, and then sent to circulate through the building. In 1986, the City of Buffalo started a District Heating system which included City Hall, the Old and New City Court Buildings, as well as the Headquarters for the Buffalo Fire Department. The system is still in operation, and has added new users over the years.
Babeville was the first high profile geothermal project in Western New York.
Kleinhans would not be the first historic public building in Buffalo converted to geothermal heating and cooling, nor would it be the first music hall in Buffalo with a geothermal system. Babeville was the first high profile geothermal project in Western New York. The high, open spaces of the former Asbury Delaware Methodist Church would be taxing on any heating system, but geothermal meets the needs of the multi-arts performance center. In another high profile restoration, a geothermal system was incorporated in the rebuilt portions of the Darwin Martin House. Frank Lloyd Wright would have approved as it allowed the restoration to hide most of the system under its spacious lawns and the heating and cooling of the rebuilt portions is done through radiant floor heating (which he used in several of his later works) embedded in the concrete floors. One other large project of note is the conversion of the former Pierce Arrow administrative building into loft apartments which has the largest geothermal system installed to date in the region.
Geothermal systems are praised as environmentally friendly, but the city should also be considering geothermal for its lower overall costs over the lifespan of the system. While the installation costs are higher than a current HVAC system, a Ground-Source Heat Pump system has lower operating costs. Unlike an older hot water boiler system, geothermal systems can provide heating and cooling of different zones of a building at the same time. And unlike the current boiler, a geothermal system requires no combustion of natural gas, allowing the city to reduce its carbon footprint.
The conversion of Kleinhans to geothermal would be another next step in the city’s path to phasing out carbon emissions.
The city-owned facility is an architectural and a cultural gem, but it is also 82 years old and needs an update. Buffalo has experience with other renewable energy projects like the addition of solar panels to many of its schools. The conversion of Kleinhans to geothermal would be another next step in the city’s path to phasing out carbon emissions in accordance with the New York State’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.