Geothermal offers promise, challenges for Great Lakes states

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A small Detroit suburb is tapping the earth’s natural energy by creating a geothermal utility — the first of its kind in the Great Lakes region.

Wyandotte, Mich., is tapping into the earth’s energy to heat and cool homes. Photo: hubertk (Flickr)

It is an ambitious example of how Great Lakes states are increasingly looking underground for energy, experts say.

Wyandotte, downriver from Detroit, is drilling 300-foot wells to reach stable underground temperatures of  approximately 50 degrees Fahrenheit that can heat and cool homes and businesses.

Geothermal wells circulate water or antifreeze between the buildings and the earth. During the winter, a geothermal system takes heat from the earth and transfers it into the building or home. During the summer, the system takes heat from indoors and transfers it underground.

“It really helps us as a utility,” said Melanie McCoy, general manager at Wyandotte Municipal Services.  “People will use less energy in the summer, when energy use is generally higher.  They’ll use 50 degree water to cool the house instead of 90 degree air from outside.”

The project, funded by the city and a $560,000 federal grant, is ambitiously looking to install 48 geothermal systems in residential, commercial and public buildings.  Eighteen have been drilled.

Wyandotte, which has a population of 25,000, has researched geothermal energy since 2007, according to McCoy.  There isn’t one answer to energy problems, she said.

“We’re looking at everything,” McCoy said.  “We have solar and wind evaluations going on, and geothermal is just another option.”

Geothermal growing in Great Lakes region

The three main uses of geothermal energy are direct use (tapping into hot reservoirs near earth’s surface), electric power plants, and the heat pumps, as Wyandotte is using.

Harnessing geothermal energy through heat pumps to regulate building temperatures, as opposed to large-scale electricity generation, is gaining traction throughout the Great Lakes region.

“It has definitely picked up in Illinois,” said John Freitag, executive director of the Geothermal Alliance of Illinois, a statewide trade association for the geothermal industry.  “Five to ten years ago, we saw very few installs, but now we see that changing, especially on the commercial side.”

Ohio has seen an uptick as well, said Tim Leftwich, geologist with Ohio’s Division of Geological Survey.

“Ohio State University is in the process of installing 500 geothermal wells to heat and cool dorms,” Leftwich said.  “And Ball State University has drilled over 1,000, which will be the largest ground source heat pump system in the country.”

According to the Union of Concerned Scientist’s primer on geothermal energy, ground-source heat pumps are the “most energy-efficient and environmentally clean heating and cooling system available” for regions with temperature extremes like the northern U.S.  Geothermal systems reduce energy usage by 25-75% over conventional heating and cooling.

The ambitious project at Ball State is estimated to save the university $2 million a year in energy costs.

Indiana is promoting geothermal heating and cooling through a rebate program as part of its Hoosier Homegrown Energy Plan.  The new pumps, however, must be additions to current heating systems.

 “Nothing but challenges”

In the Great Lakes region, wells need to be drilled much deeper than in the west to find the energy potential, Leftwich said.

Geothermal heat energy is more prevalent in the western U.S. Photo: U.S. Department of Energy

“In places like California and Nevada, they have more geothermal heat close to the surface,” Leftwich said.  “In the Midwest, we just don’t have that.”

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, most geothermal heat is produced along plate boundaries where earthquakes and volcanoes are concentrated.  Most geothermal reservoirs are located in the western states and Hawaii.

There are also non-geologic barriers to the Midwest geothermal market, said Paul Bony, director of residential market development with ClimateMaster, a manufacturer of geothermal heat pumps.  He’s also a committee member of the Geothermal Academy, a science and institutional collaboration advocating for geothermal energy.

“The biggest challenges for geothermal are lack of consumer awareness and education, lack of interest and infrastructure, and the single biggest reason is lack of affordable consumer financing,” Bony said.  “That’s where utilities can play a big role and I give the City of Wyandotte credit for taking a big step in the right direction.”

Although she’s excited about geothermal in Wyandotte, “it’s been nothing but challenges,” McCoy said.

Drilling the wells costs approximately $10,000 each, and heat pumps approximately $12,000, McCoy said.  Wyandotte officials plan to cover the installation costs and charge home and buildings owners a monthly fee based on the capacity of the system.  According to the U.S. Department of Energy, heat pumps save a typical home hundreds of dollars in energy costs each year, with the system typically paying for itself in 8 to 12 years. Tax credits and other incentives can reduce the payback period to 5 years or less – the Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008 offers tax credits of 30 percent to homeowners who install a ground source heat pump.

Wyandotte officials estimate that residents will save approximately $1,500 a year in heating and cooling costs.

Finding drilling companies that can drill the wells has proven difficult.  Urban drilling is rare and disruptive to the surroundings.

But it’s the lack of geothermal awareness, among both providers and consumers, that’s really holding geothermal back throughout the Great Lakes, Bony said.

“It’s like the chicken and the egg thing, once dealers and drillers know they have a market, they’ll learn more about it.  So you have to build that market.”

 

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