Geothermal Energy

The issue of going “green” has slowly and surely pervaded the global conversation about energy use, and it has become apparent that choosing eco-friendly products and lifestyles is no longer a question – it’s a necessity. The inevitability of change has arrived and consumers are seeking out opportunities to make responsible choices that can benefit both their families and the Earth. One such way is to choose eco-friendly building materials and processes, and in northern Wisconsin, where the necessity of heating a home is obviously paramount, options may appear limited. However, reverting to ancient and basic ways of living may provide the simplest answer to a complex issue. In other words, what’s old is new again, and geothermal heating is certainly not new technology.

Geothermal energy has been used for centuries in the form of steam and hot water, however it was not until the 20th century that an Italian named Piero Ginori Conti experimented with the first geothermal generator of electricity. With the steam he generated geothermally, he was able to transfer the energy into electrical power, enough to power four light bulbs.

“Geothermal power is extremely efficient since you’re not creating heat and energy as you would with propane or basic electricity; you’re simply moving it from one place to another,” explains heating expert Derrick Ellefson of Anschutz Plumbing in Baileys Harbor.

The notion of harnessing renewable sources, like wind and solar, goes to the heart of the green movement. Instead of wasting money and energy on a heating mechanism whose price and availability may alter with the market, consumers who utilize geothermal energy have tapped into a static, renewable resource.

Currently, the use of geothermal energy manifests itself through three different techniques. The first is conventional geothermal; this technique is usually used by large power plants and can be tapped into by using geothermal water, rocks, and steam to power turbines. The second and simplest is direct heat. This technology involves pumping hot water near the surface of the Earth to a plant which can be used in applications like farming, fishing, and even melting snow. The obvious necessity of this technique is proximity to hot springs or hot water wells. The third and final technology is called a geothermal heat pump. It is this final technology that can be utilized by the average American looking to build new or alter their current form of energy consumption.

Here’s how it works:  homes that utilize geothermal power use either an open loop or closed loop system. On an open loop system, well water from the property is pumped into the home where it moves into a heat pump. The well water, since it comes from below the frost line, is usually at a stable average temperature of 55 degrees. Once the water is pumped into the building, it is sent to a geothermal pump to be cooled.

“Like a refrigerator works, when you cool what’s inside, the outside becomes hot. Inside the condenser, there are coils that heat up from the process. Then a fan blows over the hot coils and I have warm forced air,” explains geothermal system owner Chris Fellner.

Once the water is cooled down it can be pumped out of the house, where it can be rerouted into drainages or creeks, or be used, as Fellner does, for irrigation purposes. In the summertime, the system works the same, but instead of cooling the water down further, the system simply blows air over the cool water, creating forced air conditioning that is completely natural.

“Cooling my home in the summer is extremely efficient and cheap,” Fellner notes. “My energy bills in the summer to cool my house are usually only about $30 a month.”

A closed loop system works in a similar fashion, except that it does not utilize well water exclusively. Most closed loop systems use a non-toxic glycol called refrigerant which runs continuously in a loop down into the ground to bring back cooled refrigerant. To gain access to this static temperature, a property owner has three options of placement for their pipes and tubing:  in a pond, in parallel trenches dug on the property, or drilled wells. In any of these scenarios, loops and lengths of tubing are placed below ground level, or below grade, to tap into the consistent temperature of the Earth below the frost line. As with an open loop system, once the liquid returns to the home, the refrigerant is sent through an efficient heat pump used to heat spaces.

Robyn Mulhaney of the Flying Pig Gallery in Algoma is one business owner who decided that employing geothermal energy was both economically and environmentally worthwhile. Mulhaney, along with co-owner Susan Connor, decided that the property was well suited for a combination of passive solar and geothermal energy use.

“The sandy soils were perfect for a vertically installed closed loop geothermal system,” Mulhaney explains. “We drilled nine holes 220 feet to hold our tubing. The base temperature at that depth is 55 degrees. An earth friendly, non-toxic liquid flows through the tubing bringing 55-degree liquid back to our heat pumps. At that point we use a heat pump to switch over to a forced air system for heating our gallery.”

Energy consumption in a home can be extremely costly, both in financial terms and in environmental expenses. One of the major advantages of utilizing geothermal energy is how efficient and cost effective it is.

“The average 1,500 square-foot home uses approximately 150 million BTUs [British Thermal Units] a year,” says Derrick Ellefson. “Most propane burning furnaces operate at an approximately 95 percent efficiency rate. With propane prices at $2 per gallon, that works out to about $23 per million BTUs, making the average cost of heating a home by propane $3,400 a year.

“Since the process of geothermal is moving heat, not creating it, it can be anywhere from 300 to 500 percent efficient. Even if you’re dealing with a 300 percent efficiency at $12 per million BTUs, it only costs about $1,800 a year to heat your house geothermally,” says Ellefson.

These figures make it difficult to argue that tapping into geothermal heat is anything but cost effective. However, like most green technology that is “new” to the scene, the equipment and installation can be costly. Conditions on the property must be considered as well as what type of geothermal heat pump will work the best for that condition.

“Door County is incredibly varied and diverse in terms of landscape,” explains Chris Olson, the Assistant Sanitarian in Door County’s Sanitarian Department. Door County has everything from heavily wooded areas of little topsoil and much bedrock, as well as silty, shoreline properties. Farmland and meadow that are rich in topsoil, also a common property type in Door County, possess ideal conditions that make it easier to install geothermal equipment.

“Like all things, it’s a case by case basis when it comes to green building practices. If you live in the middle of the woods, you don’t go for solar,” Olson states. Indeed, it is the same way with geothermal energy. It may not be cost effective to attempt to dig trenches or wells to install geothermal equipment if your home sits on bedrock. If the conditions are appropriate, as is the case with the Flying Pig, the benefits can outweigh the initial cost.

“The initial cost was about 30 percent higher than traditional forced air gas systems. We estimated that it would take six years to enjoy a payback and we are now at that point,” says Robyn Mulhaney.

Mulhaney’s story sounds a great deal like Chris Fellner’s. He built his home in 2004, and when a friend suggested he look into a geothermal system, Fellner was pleased with the information that his research yielded and moved forward with the project.

“Everyone’s attempting to get a more efficient set up in their home, and the options are becoming endless to do things alternatively. [Geothermal] probably requires the least amount of upkeep of all the alternative options. It’s really simple to operate, and really cost effective,” Fellner says.

All of the energy in Fellner’s home runs on electricity (aside from the geothermal energy he taps into):  all the lights, appliances, and the geothermal pump. During the winter of 2008-2009, Fellner’s energy bills averaged approximately $200 a month for his entire home. The only disadvantage he cited, though, was the initial investment.

With green technology investments, one must be patient. The payoff for this type of investment is long term, and those who decide to go the green direction need to be aware that it may take time for the financial payback to rebound, even though the environmental payback is immediate.

“The people who choose to pursue geothermal energy and other green building practices don’t do it for the quick rate of return; they do it because the cost of their choice is greater than the self. It may take decades to see a full payback from the initial investment, but these people are thinking that far ahead – of kids and grandkids – and of the Earth,” Olson states.

Olson is quick to point out that the current administration in the White House is making it easier and more beneficial to invest in these practices due to tax break incentives, causing a more immediate return on the initial investment, which is certainly a move in the right direction.

Like many green building practices, geothermal usage is beginning to pop up all over the country and the county as eco-friendly practice becomes more mainstream. Here in Door County, there are a variety of businesses that offer geothermal services including Anschutz Plumbing and Heating, Wulf Brothers, Eagle Mechanical, and Guilette Heating and Air Conditioning. Additionally, if an interested party is not prepared to make the whole investment, the majority of the businesses have the capability of installing geothermal equipment that can work with an existing furnace, taking 60 to 70 percent of the brunt of heating forced air away from the propane.

Installing or building with geothermal energy may not be for everyone; however, just learning about the options available brings consumers one step closer to being completely informed. Mulhaney cites that along with the environmental sustainability and effective cost, sharing their building and living practices with customers is one of the most lasting benefits of geothermal power.

“For our customers the greatest benefit has been education. We enjoy chatting with customers regarding our choices and directing them to websites such as Wisconsin Geothermal Association and Wisconsin Focus on Energy,” Mulhaney states.

This simple technology has been operating for over 100 years, so one of the most basic tasks is sharing information and reassuring consumers. More and more families are switching over to green energy practices. Fellner, alone, cited a half dozen homes in the Sevastopol area that are utilizing geothermal energy.

“We’re very lucky due to our proximity to the Great Lakes; the conditions are ideal for green energy use, including geothermal,” Fellner says.

Geothermal power, along with wind energy, solar power, and a variety of other eco-friendly energy techniques, have re-emerged into the energy conversation, and while the initial investment may seem costly or complicated, the costs of inaction may be far greater. And the payback, money aside, is magnificent.