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Geothermal” energy from the earth

by Susan Simons

When the Journal ran a series of articles about Tri-State Generation and Transmission and their proposal to construct a transmission line through the County, Tri-State public relations requested that Journal staff research Tri-State involvement in renewable energy projects around the state and region.  Following is the first of a series of articles on this topic.

    The earth maintains a steady temperature of 50 to 60 degrees below the surface.  It is warmer than the air above in winter and cooler in summer.  Geothermal heating and cooling taps this stable, predictable source to heat a building in winter and cool it in summer.  Tom Polikalas, of Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA), explains that it has the lowest operating cost, lowest life cycle cost, and most efficient operation of all home heating and cooling options available today.  It can be installed in most existing buildings as well as those being constructed.

    The problem for most homeowners is the initial cost, especially of the part of the system outside the building.  The cost of drilling to  install the ground source loops either vertically or horizontally can run anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 depending on the terrain and the heating requirement and size of the home.  Once this infrastructure is installed, it will outlive the building and is like the poles and wires of electricity transmission or the underground pipelines of natural gas.  For this reason, many suggest that consumers should not have to pay for this infrastructure but should pay only for the heat pump and in-house duct work.

    At Delta-Montrose, they have developed a program that pays for installing the ground source loops.  DMEA will own and maintain the loop just as utility companies own and maintain their poles and wires or pipelines.  They will charge the consumer a monthly fee of $15-$29 a month, based on the system’s size, like the monthly base charge most people pay for electricity.

    The consumer then pays for equipment installed inside the home. With incentives such as a 30% tax credit from the federal government, the cost is close to the cost of a conventional heating and cooling system.  According to DMEA, Tri-State has supported this effort for quite a while in the form of rebate checks to members who install geo-thermal systems.  Tri-State’s rebate checks to DMEA members have ranged from $600-$20,000.   The higher amount went to the Montrose County Health and Human Services building for the geothermal retrofit, much larger because of the larger heating and cooling system in a commercial building.  For homes, the Tri-State rebate normally falls between $600-$950.

    DMEA is a rural electric co-op, just like San Isabel Electric Association.  How have they managed to come up with such an innovative plan?  First, according to Tom Polikalas, their Public Relations Director, they have a board which has been committed to developing geo-thermal for about ten years in order to help members manage rising heating and cooling costs, improve the co-op’s load factor, and promote green technologies.  Like co-ops across the country, they have longterm, low interest loans from USDA Rural Utilities Services for installing ground source loop systems, similar to loans utilities may make to install poles and wires.  In addition, DMEA has built a geothermal installation team which is part of their staff.  Also, DMEA has the capability to design a system for consumers, engineering it to the specific building.  To date, they have more than 500 systems up and operating.

    According to Polikalas, geothermal saves consumers 50 to70 percent of the cost of heating and cooling with natural gas or propane. A study by the US Environmental Protection Agency states, “GeoExchange is the most energy efficient, environmentally clean, and cost-effective space conditioning system available.” With innovative co-op programs, the answer to high heating and cooling bills could be as close as your back yard.      

    Next week we will look at the application of geothermal in two pubic school buildings and in our own Spanish Peaks Library.