The Michigan State Capitol is in need of extensive renovation. Credit: Michael McCluskey for Midwest Energy News

Michigan’s 138-year-old Capitol building is falling apart from the inside. Amid the decorated halls of this national historical landmark in downtown Lansing, officials are struggling to keep up with the deterioration of the building’s insides caused by antiquated heating and cooling controls.

After a recent renovation of the building’s exterior, the state is now embarking on a roughly two-year, $70 million upgrade to the infrastructure. A major component of that, Capitol maintenance officials hope, will be a new geothermal system for heating and cooling that is self-contained and doesn’t rely on the local municipal utility.

Engineering consultants have demonstrated the property is a prime candidate for geothermal based on conductivity tests. Those overseeing the project hope state lawmakers will appropriate the necessary funding by June 1 in a budget bill after legislation to do so stalled at the end of last session. Excavation and drilling could then start in August while lawmakers are on break.

The purpose of upgrading the Capitol’s energy controls is to protect its unique architecture and design, but also to prevent a growing safety risk. This could be achieved with a new conventional system, though geothermal comes with added clean energy benefits and lower energy bills long-term, officials say.

The heating and cooling component will be coupled with other energy efficiency upgrades, particularly in lighting, that aim to cut the Capitol’s $800,000 annual utility bill in half.

Robert Blackshaw, director of facility operations, said Michigan would have the third Capitol building in the U.S. equipped with geothermal, following Oklahoma and Colorado.

“For the mechanical, electrical and plumbing components, a lot of it has outlived its life expectancy,” Blackshaw said. After engineers found potential for the site, “We thought, ‘How could we put in geothermal for the best use of the building?’”

The planned closed-loop system involves drilling about 200 wells roughly 450 feet below the surface of where state lawmakers currently park on the west side of the building. The east-side lawn includes statues and the building’s main staircase where public demonstrations often take place.

Understanding the need

The geothermal portion, while carrying a higher upfront cost than a traditional heating and cooling system, is expected to have a return on investment in eight to 10 years.

It is being overseen by the Michigan State Capitol Commission, a task force created in 2014 to help guide multiple restoration projects, which is optimistic the funding will be approved.

Tim Bowlin, chief financial officer and project manager with the commission, said a renewable energy component like geothermal wasn’t necessarily part of the plan at the outset. But engineers showed that the geothermal potential on the property was high and that such a system would provide a good return on investment.

“It’s rare that a historical structure can meld so easily to that green generation,” Bowlin said.

He said the commission also looked at onsite solar generation to offset the building’s electric costs. While that looks less feasible, there may be an opportunity to partner on a project with the Lansing Board of Water and Light, he added.

The Legislature may approve a direct appropriation to pay for the infrastructure project, or the state could use its bonding authority to pay for it over time, Bowlin said.

So far, though, the biggest challenge hasn’t been convincing lawmakers on the merits of geothermal, but whether the building actually needs such a major infrastructure overhaul.

“Buying into (geothermal) hasn’t been difficult — it’s getting people to understand the need for it,” Bowlin said. “It’s easy when you have a roof leak and can see the problem.”

Steve DiBerardine, of Strategic Energy Solutions based near Detroit, oversaw the geothermal conductivity tests at the site. He thinks of an onsite geothermal system as its own utility, but added that upfront costs can often act as a deterrent.

“Although geothermal isn’t the lowest first cost, on total lifecycle costs geothermal will win every time,” he said.

‘Is it safe?’

Bowlin described the heating and cooling systems now — which are outdated and pneumatically controlled — as “fighting each other.”

“It causes inefficiencies and damage to the building,” he said. “The infrastructure of this building is protecting little from the outside.”

A promotional video made by the commission says “past budget constraints” have prevented major infrastructure upgrades. And since the building’s infrastructure is “not very accommodating” to such major overhauls, “The mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems have been shoehorned and pieced into the building over the past several decades.”

Beneath the ground floor of the Capitol, a cavernous area filled with pipes and machinery shows antiquated brick walls that are cracking and rusting from the stress around it. In late April, cranes were onsite to move three cooling towers to temporary locations in order to make room below ground for more space for pipes and machines.

“Over the years, you get to the point of: Is it safe?” said Blackshaw, pointing at the walls. Standing in the walkway crowded with pipes, he added: “It wasn’t designed for all of this.”

Blackshaw, who worked at the Capitol from 1991 to 2005, came back roughly 18 months ago for this project. The biggest change he’s seen in facility management over the years is “being more efficient with the money you spend, whether it’s public or private dollars. Especially with taxpayer money it’s important to spend it wisely. And if we can be sustainable and green, we should do that too, as opposed to depending on utility companies. If we can do it ourselves, why not?”

The last major infrastructure improvements at the Capitol took place in the early 1990s. This project will be far more extensive, Bowlin said, with the added difficulty of working around a busy site often occupied by the public.

“It’s going to be an enormous challenge,” he said.

Capitol Historian Valerie Marvin said during construction in the 1870s, Illinois-based architect Elijah Myers (who designed two other capitols) used a “holistic” design to move fresh air throughout the building for heating and cooling purposes.

“It was a system using natural resources, if you will,” Marvin said. “In some ways it reminds me of geothermal. At various times in history, we just tried to put band-aids on it — it’s been much more of a piecemeal approach, which hasn’t been terribly successful.

“I wonder what Elijah Myers today would think of geothermal. I’m pretty sure if he was alive and designing capitols now he’d definitely consider it for buildings.”

Andy compiles the Midwest Energy News digest and was a journalism fellow for Midwest Energy News from 2014-2020. He is managing editor of MiBiz in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was formerly a reporter and editor at City Pulse, Lansing’s alternative newsweekly.