Geothermal heat gets real

I love renewable energy stories. We know that if we can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, we can reduce global warming, our utility bills and, one hopes, our military presence in the Middle East.

But renewable energy stories frequently disappoint. What starts out like a success story turns out to be merely a hint at renewable energy’s potential. Too often, the project isn’t quite there yet. It’s merely proposed, or it’s in the demonstration stage, or it’s underwritten by a one-of-a-kind grant, or it’s only a tiny improvement on traditional methods.

That’s why I’m delighted to hear that a local developer has invested in geothermal to heat and cool a four-unit residential condominium now on the market. According to the local paper, the holes have been dug, the pipes have been laid, and the condos are more than 90 percent complete. It looks like a rare marriage of renewable energy and the free market: private money going into a private project (with any tax credits going to the eventual homeowners).

So while the success story isn’t complete, it’s real. Explaining his rationale for the project, developer Steve Kelm said the owners will never have to worry about rate shock of fluctuating heating oil prices: “I’d rather be ahead of the curve.”

The payback on a project like this is about five years, estimates Andy Livingston, chairman and CEO of American Ecothermal Inc., also of Portsmouth, which installed the geothermal “wells.”

How does geothermal heating and cooling work?
Geothermal uses heat from the earth’s core and sun-baked surface to heat homes in the winter and cool them in the summer. You need a geothermal heat pump (GHP), which circulates a carrier fluid through underground pipes. In the winter, the heat pump uses electricity to extract heat from the ground-warmed fluid, sending re-chilled fluid back through the ground to pick up more heat. And the cycle continues. The principle is similar to an air conditioner or refrigerator. This approach is 48 percent more efficient than the best gas furnaces and more than 75 percent more efficient than oil furnaces, according to the EPA.

To cool a home in the summer months, switch the direction of the heat flow, and the same system can extract heat from the air, thereby cooling it.

What are the benefits?
Geothermal heating and cooling offer a potential large reduction in energy use, peak demand and utility bills. Aggressive deployment of GHPs could nearly halve the need for net new electricity capacity needed by 2030, according to a U.S. Department of Energy study. It could reduce electricity bills by as much as $38 billion.

More stats from the Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium, the non-profit trade association for the GHP industry:

  • Operating 100,000 geothermal heat pump units over 20 years would be the greenhouse gas/carbon reduction equivalent of taking 58,700 cars off the road or planting 120,000 acres of trees.
  • Owners can expect savings of 30 to 70 percent in heating mode and 20 to 50 percent in cooling mode compared with conventional systems.
  • GHPs reduce energy consumption and corresponding emissions by 40 to 70 percent over traditional heating methods (e.g., furnaces).

And there are concrete tax incentives. The IRS is offering tax credits for 30 percent of the spending on geothermal heat pump equipment, including labor. Installing a $12,000 geothermal heat pump system would give you a $3,600 credit.

Geothermal in the works
We’re just getting started with geothermal heating and cooling. The United states has more than 600,000 GHP units, the largest installed base in the world, but many European companies are ahead on a per capita basis, according to the DOE.

A Reno casino, the Peppermill Resort Spa, has tapped an underground aquifer holding 170-degree water to heat a 17-story hotel tower, including restaurants, 1,600 rooms, and the water for the sinks and showers. Owners are predicting $1 million in a year in savings with an eight-year payback.

An Iowa town is using part of a $1 million community development grant to create a shared geothermal heating and cooling system for the downtown.

Some homeowners are designing homes that combine geothermal with passive solar and knock $1,000 off their utility bills. This geothermal/solar design involves solid wood walls, an airflow envelope just inside the walls, and lots of windows on the southern exposure.

Meanwhile, there’s an entire separate industry using geothermal to produce electricity. That’s for another post, but one exciting possibility is in oil production. Oil extraction is accompanied by non-petroleum hot fluids that can help power field equipment. “With an estimated 10 barrels of hot water produced along with each barrel of oil in the United states, there is significant resource potential for this technology,” says the US DOE.

Bring it on. It’s time for more success stories.

Maibach says climate change is about you & me, not plants & polar bears

Ed Maibach had an epiphany while mountain hiking in 2006. Walking with Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber – Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research – he realized that while climate change is the ultimate threat to the public’s health and well-being, the vast majority of us don’t realize it.

This inspired him to refocus his work on prevention and adaptation, joining George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication in 2007.

Ed Maibach – Center for Climate Change Communication“Climate change is associated with all kinds of things, from alarmists to demonstrators to extremists to it being a ‘Democratic issue.’ Fundamentally, it’s been framed as an environmental issue, but it should be a human, public health issue,” Maibach told me in a recent get together.

But how do we get people to understand climate change is fundamental to the survival of human civilization – to you and me? Maibach’s working on a few very interesting communications initiatives involving people who are innately trusted by the general public. Two examples he cited (there are many other possibilities) are local TV weather forecasters and pediatricians.

“People like this are right here in our local community. We see them or hear from them often. We rely on their judgment and have a relationship with them. They could become a trusted conduit to educate people about the human impact of climate change.”

So let’s say you bring your child to the pediatrician and the subject of an extreme weather event comes up in a passing conversation. This moment can become an opportunity for the pediatrician to very casually connect this with global warming and the impact on your child. No dissertation, slide show and long discussion; just a simple, quick comment connecting effect with cause. It’s subtle, real-time and authentic.

Maibach said he’s securing funding from the National Science Foundation and will be testing this local trust concept with a CBS TV affiliate weathercaster in Columbia, South Carolina. If it goes well, the idea may scale nationally.

“People can’t grasp climate change. We need them to understand that global warming is (A) real and (B) bad for people.”

By subtly educating people through trusted connections, Maibach says, “We’re finding a way to fly this topic under the perceptual radar screen. If we can get your local pediatrician to explain what’s going on, then we’re letting what they say into our heads and hearts.”

Wind power and one African boy’s astonishing story

I’ll keep this wind energy post as short as my last one was long. I’m speechless and inspired by the story I just read of a self-educated African boy from Malawi who in 2002 cobbled together bike parts, gum tree wood, an old shock absorber and other junk to bring the first sparks of electric power to his village. Fourteen-year-old William Kamkwamba of Masitala had spent so much time tinkering and dump-picking in preparing his wind turbine that his neighbors thought he was smoking pot. But when he scaled the rickety 16-foot tower and sparked up a car light bulb, he became a village sensation. He has since created the village’s first water supply and irrigation system. Read the BBC article. There’s a video, too. And a book.