New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral Embraces Renewable Energy

Photo courtesy St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Photo by Tony Correa.

(CN) – New York City’s iconic St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Tuesday activated a geothermal plant installed beneath it, just one of a series of significant upgrades the historic edifice is undergoing in this, it’s 136th year.

The $177 million renovation of St. Patrick’s Cathedral is the most extensive it has ever undergone. The four-year project was not expected to be completed until December, but workers are ahead of schedule and most of the project will likely will be finished later next month.

The Archdiocese of New York said Tuesday that its embrace of renewable energy is part of an effort to adapt the landmark to the structural and environmental standards of twenty-first century urban life.

Monsignor Robert Ritchie, the cathedral’s rector, said the project is entirely in line with the church’s mission.

“A consistent ethic of life does not compartmentalize these issues. It prioritizes life and the preservation of life at every level.  One of the most basic ways in which we are called to do so is through responsible stewardship of our natural resources,” Monsignor Ritchie said.

He also said the archdiocese wants to lead by example.

The high-profile installation comes at a time when there’s much uncertainty over President Donald Trump’s commitment to future renewable energy development in the United States.

Since taking office in January, Trump has repeatedly acted on campaign promises to increase fossil fuel production and roll-back longstanding environmental protections to foster coal, oil and natural gas development.

Neither Ritchie nor the archdiocese commented on Trump’s policies in announcing the launch of its the geothermal plant.

But the project is seen by environmentalists and renewable energy advocates as both a milestone and a much-needed development in the city that researchers have said is the most wasteful megacity in the world.

Photo courtesy St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Photo by Whitney Cox.

According to a 2015 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, New York City consumes more water and energy, and generates more waste than any other metropolitan area with a population of more than 10 million people.

The study found the city’s buildings consume two-thirds of the energy it uses, and that over half that energy is used for space heating alone.

Fossil fuels burnt for that purpose cause nearly 40 percent of CO2 emissions in America, the researchers said.

“The New York metropolis has 12 million fewer people than Tokyo, yet it uses more energy in total: the equivalent of one oil supertanker every 1.5 days,” said study author Chris Kennedy, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto, in a statement that accompanied the release of the report.

At the same time, the study found, New York City produces over 33 million tons of waste a year — far surpassing Mexico City, which came in second in terms of waste produced with 12 million tons annually.

The engineering plan for the St. Patrick Cathedral’s geothermal plant was conceived by the cathedral’s design team, Murphy, Burnham, & Buttrick, Landmark Facilities Group, and PW Grosser, who developed and repurposed the existing infrastructure to harness renewable power from an underground system of wells.

That power will be used to regulate the temperature of the cathedral and adjoining buildings with increased efficiency and a considerable reduction in CO2 emissions, the archdiocese said in a news release.

Photo courtesy St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Photo by Whitney Cox.

Jeff Murphy, principal at Murphy, Burnham, & Buttrick, the architects at the helm of the restoration, said “In many ways, the geothermal option was the most complex heating and cooling option considered.

“However, the Archdiocese made the well-calculated and enlightened decision to pursue this approach based on myriad factors including a long-term cost benefit analysis. The geothermal system is compact, quiet and goes a long way towards minimizing the Cathedral’s environmental impact,” Murphy said.

Richard Sileo, senior engineer with Landmark Facilities Group, said that at the outset a conventional HVAC system was considered for the project, but but the restoration team determined it would pose too many challenges for this historic building.

“We conducted a feasibility study and found that a geothermal system let us meet our goals with the smallest impact,”  Sileo said.

Work on the project commenced in June 2015 with the drilling of a series of wells on the north and south side of the cathedral.

The geothermal plant is comprised of 10 wells dug to a depth of as much as 2,200 feet. Four of the wells run along 51st Street, while the other six run along 50th Street.

The heart of the system is a bit of technology called a “dedicated heat recovery chiller,” which extracts thermal energy from the underground system of wells and distributes it throughout the cathedral campus for heating and cooling purposes.

This is accomplished through a standing column hybrid open loop system. While a description of an open loop system can get quite technical, at its most basic it is a system in which an input alters the output, but the output has no feedback loop and therefore no effect on the input.

Photo courtesy St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Photo by Tony Correa.

Structure Tone worked with Lane Associates to oversee the installation of the heat pump, as well as the sophisticated distribution network of heat exchangers, air handlers, and fan coils that extract and redirect heat through the 76,000 square feet of space.

While most geothermal plants alternate between their warming and chilling functions, the St. Patrick’s Cathedral plant is designed to automatically split its cooling and warming functions in order to simultaneously heat or cool the diverse areas it services.

When fully activated, the central plant will be able to generate 2.9 million BTU’s per hour of air conditioning and 3.2 million BTU’s per hour of heating.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral is widely considered the symbolic seat of the Catholic Church in the United States.

Pope Francis visited the cathedral in Sept. 2015, when he prayed the Evening Prayer at a Vespers service following an appearance before the UN.

Pope Paul VI visited the cathedral during a 13-hour visit to New York, in October 1965, and Pope John Paul II stopped at the cathedral on Oct. 3, 1979, prior to his celebrating a Mass before 80,000 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. A bust of Pope John Paul II commemorating his visit is now located in the rear of the cathedral.