A worker for a geothermal heating and cooling company works in Lansing, Michigan, in 2018.
CNN  — 

The Biden administration is rethinking how homes are heated and cooled in the US, eyeing a tried-and-true, but thus far underutilized, climate solution to reduce planet-warming pollution and save homeowners money on energy costs.

To do it, the Department of Energy is tapping 11 communities around the US to spend the next year designing projects to harness below-ground, geothermal energy to heat and cool homes, libraries, community centers and other buildings.

On Tuesday, DOE will announce that the communities – which range in size from New York City to Nome, Alaska – have received the first round of funding to help them reimagine how our homes stay comfortable. Geothermal heating and cooling could eventually be brought into homes and buildings using heat pumps, which are highly efficient appliances that circulate warm or cool air through buildings, according to the department.

“That heat pump is basically run from heat in the ground,” Arlene Anderson, project manager for DOE’s Geothermal Technologies Office, told CNN. “The fuel is basically the Earth source heat.”

It’s part of a multi-year, $13 million project to explore how geothermal heating and cooling could be applied not only in rural areas but densely populated cities. After their year-long design phase, DOE will select a smaller number of these projects to fully fund and deploy. Details of the project were shared first with CNN.

In the long run, the effort could help communities transition away from heating and cooling with energy from planet-warming fossil fuels. Residential energy use accounts for around 20% of the country’s climate emissions, and a large portion of that is from energy used to heat and cool homes.

DOE’s announcement comes as the administration aims to make good on President Joe Biden’s promise to slash US carbon pollution in half by 2030. To get there, it’s looking to significantly increase wind energy and ramp up the adoption of electric vehicles. The administration is also expected to announce soon an aggressive new power plant rule that could dramatically reduce emissions from both coal and natural gas fired power plants.

And the administration has found the climate potential of geothermal energy is huge. So far, it has only been used on a much smaller scale than other clean technologies like solar and wind. But a recent DOE report found geothermal energy for heating and cooling could reach 90 gigawatts by 2050, which would cut around 1 billion metric tons of planet-warming emissions – roughly the same amount as taking 20 million cars off the road per year.

US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said the technology “will expand the uses of clean energy in decarbonizing our communities,” and added that geothermal heating and cooling “can go a long way in decarbonizing the building and electricity sectors.”

How geothermal could be used to heat and cool your home

Geothermal technology can be used for two things: to produce electricity or to generate heat and warmth. This project will focus on the latter.

To start the process, geothermal wells are drilled into the Earth – similar to a water well. The wells are outfitted with pipes which are installed in a closed loop so that water can circulate through them. That water is warmed up by the below-ground heat, and the warm water can then be used to power super-efficient heat pumps that push heat into or out of a building, depending on the season.

Some individual houses currently use geothermal heating and cooling systems like this, Anderson told CNN, but it’s much rarer in the US to have systems that can power entire neighborhoods.

There are 23 known communities that are using geothermal to heat and cool their buildings, according to the DOE. The best-known example of this, it says, is in Boise, where water warmed via geothermal energy is used to heat more than 6 million square feet of building space, according to the city’s website.

Still, the US is behind the ball on the technology.

“These are fairly common in Europe where geothermal is used in a district system, but not so much in the US,” Anderson said. “There’s a lot of competition from other energy sources, mostly oil, gas and coal. There’s also a lack of knowledge about this technology in the US even though it’s been around for a long time.”

DOE’s goal is to eventually have a quarter of each of the selected communities’ overall heating and cooling be supplied by geothermal, Anderson said. And part of the goal of the first design phase is to see how well it can work in different communities of varying sizes and locations around the country.

For instance, neighborhoods in two of America’s largest cities – New York City and Chicago – are planning to demonstrate how they can use geothermal to power hundreds of apartments and residential buildings. Duluth, Minnesota, which has a much colder climate, is planning to use a geothermal system that’s powered by wasted heat from their wastewater treatment plant, while the remote community of Nome, Alaska, wants to use the technology to help keep cool food storage areas, in addition to heating residential buildings.

Anderson said DOE will spend the next month negotiating on funding for the design phase with each community. Once that is settled, the communities will each have a year to design their projects, including coming up with engineering designs that are “good enough to obtain permits,” according to Anderson. After that, DOE will move forward with a final selection process on a smaller number of projects.

“We’re looking at a lot of different configurations, whether it’s rural, remote, or urban,” Anderson said. “It’s new for us; it’s exciting.”