In a bitterly cold climate, a geothermal greenhouse is the only cost-effective way to grow food all winter long. Most people use water circulation kept warm far below the surface to heat a structure, but there’s a little known method that uses only air. One that University of Nebraska scientists said would never work back in 1979. Never say never!
North Platte Natural Resources District (NPNRD) in Nebraska is in the fundraising stage of constructing just such a geothermal greenhouse. Their model is far more sustainable, requiring no electricity. It’s a modern version of the one those scientists told Nebraskan Russ Finch was impossible about 40 years ago. At the time, Russ was trying to design a less expensive geothermal home heating system. His against-physics-heating idea actually warms both his house and indoor growing space. The greenhouses came after it proved super efficient at keeping his large new home and atrium comfortably warm… Even on sub-zero days.
We ran a feature on Russ’ Citrus in the Snow project a couple of years ago. A fascinating discovery for a retired postman, to say the least. Yet, the home heating industry still sticks with the costly, labor intensive geothermal water system. Furthermore, those systems cost twice as much to install and run.
Back when Russ installed his geothermal greenhouse, solar energy technology was light years behind what we have today. So, he powers his fans with electricity, which combined with his home and watering costs about $450 annually. But NPNRD’s installation will take advantage of solar power in the new greenhouse they’re building. This will drop the cost of running their northern climate operation to almost nothing after the cost of building.
Nebraska’s NRDs are a lot like what is known as conservation districts in other states, but they’ve evolved into something more. The NRDs control the district’s watershed and drainage infrastructure as is traditional. But they also protect natural resources and educate the public about being more sustainable citizens. They have outdoor classrooms for teaching sustainable land use, ecology, and other conservation topics. This new geothermal greenhouse will add a new dimension to one such NPNRD education location.
The planned building site in Scottsbluff is leased from the local airport. It currently features huge native grass plantings, beehives, and a pollinator food plot. The NPNRD feels the geothermal greenhouse is the perfect fit for incorporating into classes on alternative farming, local ecology, plant science, and range judging. The harvests the sustainable greenhouse produces will feed the hungry via donations to local charities. Not lettuce, but fresh, locally grown oranges and grapefruit. Maybe bananas and tomatoes too.
Some people in the upper Southwest/southern Mountain region have access to underground hot springs. However, if you don’t live in such a location, this is your best alternative for affordable greenhouse heat in winter. In fact, even then, it costs a lot more to install and operate that hot springs fed system. So much so, that until people became willing to pay a lot for locally grown produce recently, no such commercial venture succeeded. But it sounds like it’s best to grow just to supply your own restaurant. Geo-air, as Russ calls it, is the way to go… anywhere winter interrupts food production.
You can learn exactly how Russ engineered his geothermal greenhouse too for $12 by buying a copy of his report. Not only is it affordable, but it’s also not a gimmick. Even the USDA has studied and documented his “impossible” heating system and greenhouse for over 30 years. Citrus in the Snow suffers no frost damage on tender citrus plants, even when temps dip to 30-40 degrees below zero! There’s actually two separate growing spaces; tropical and winter dormancy. Some plants must take a rest to perform.
According to Russ’ Greenhouse In The Snow website, a total of 17 geothermal greenhouses exist today – in 6 states and Canada. Including the classroom unit at his hometown high school chronicled on that webpage. So, the NPNRD build makes it 18. Surprisingly, the design is still so little represented after all these years. Then again, the model doesn’t fit the traditional greenhouse design. However, the design is now updated from the original, as he states in the video above.
Homegrown bananas anyone? No slave labor, no constant pesticide baths, just yummy fruit.
- NPNRD Greenhouse Project
- Farm Show feature
- Hot Springs Greenhouses Not Cost-Efficient
- University of Wyoming
- Omaha World-Herald (news source)
Images courtesy of Kopelli Camping, video screen capture, and caucus 99 percent (respectively).
Hi, I am considering experimenting with a system based on Mr. Finch’s air circulation system in the Seattle area. Does anyone have experience with a geothermal system in a not very cold (zone 8b) but very frequently overcast environment like the Pacific Northwest?
Since you don’t have a lot of solar energy, wouldn’t you be better off working with a wind generator?
I’m very interested in experimenting with one of these geothermal designs…but am becoming frustrated by the lack of actual plans available. Does anybody know of a source for these?
would this system work in the northern most panhandle of Idaho. I’ve been told i’m to far north for sun even though I heat with geo thermal i would’t have enough sun. How far north have your greenhouses been built
How can I get plans and any reports. i get a not secure site for the greenhouse in the snow website.
I think this system should work just fine in Idaho. Idaho doesn’t reach north of the 50° N latitude. Here in Iceland it is possible to grow in greenhouses for a least 9 months of the year, without insulation but extensive geothermal heating. And Iceland lies between the 64° and 66° N! With artificial lightning it is possible to grow all year around here.
As far as building a unit in south Alabama, would you recommend it?
I don’t think it would be necessary! A standard greenhouse should do just fine in your climate.