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Geothermal Energy Becoming a Low Cost Option in Utah

Courtesy of John Loveless
A rough diagram of John Loveless' geothermal heating and cooling system.

With the recent cold snap, December’s natural gas bill will be higher for most residents, but there is form of underground energy that is keeping one Utah family warm for almost nothing.

About a year ago, John Loveless had a decision to make. Should he buy into a geothermal technology that uses the earth’s stable ground temperature to heat his home or stay with natural gas?  He could eliminate his natural gas bill, but he would have to pay $19,000 in installation costs for a geothermal system to do so.

“So that was a real tough thing for me.  The energy improvement must have a return on investment, or else what’s the point,” says Loveless.

He had already invested in other energy efficiency improvements, including solar panels on his roof, so he decided to make that investment and he hasn’t looked back since.  I went to his home in Kaysville to see how his geothermal heating and cooling system works.

It’s 10 degrees outside and his large lawn is covered with a smooth white blanket of snow.  We step onto the snow and he tells me what we can’t see. 

“You don’t think about it. You own land all the way down to the center of the earth I guess, and I don’t know where the land stops but you can use that, all that free energy storage,” says Loveless.

Loveless is tapping into the geothermal energy source under the Earth’s surface with  three loops of pipe  300 feet below his home.  We walk back inside  and go down to the basement where the outdoor pipes feed into his solar powered electric heat pump.  The heat pump looks like Loveless’ old furnace, but doesn’t use any fossil fuels.

“It’s not very loud, you can kind of hear a low hum, that’s the compressor inside,” says Loveless.

The compressor compresses a liquid refrigerant circulating through the underground pipes which raises its temperature.  The resulting warm air rises and travels through the home’s air duct system.  It’s that simple. Loveless points to temperature gauges that currently show the insulated refrigerant comes inside the house at 56 degrees and after the compression phase circulates back into the ground at 50 degrees to warm back up. 

“That tiny amount of temperature change is actually heating the entire house, which is pretty amazing,” says Loveless.

The geothermal magic continues when we head back upstairs and Loveless starts crunching more numbers.  As an electrical engineer he’s an energy enthusiast and has been keeping track of his daily energy use and online bills for years. 

He points to a Questar natural gas bill where it shows he paid $1.89 per day in November 2011, and this year he paid $0.25 cents a day.

“Most of our bill is actually the connection fee.  The privilege of having a gas meter on your house, about five dollars a month plus some taxes, and we only spend about two dollars a month in the gas usage,” said Loveless.

The clothes dryer costs him that two dollars a month, and Loveless says he’ll replace it to achieve complete natural gas independence. Most Utahns, however, fully depend on natural gas to heat their homes according to Questar Gas Spokesman Chad Jones.

“If you have access to it in Utah, you pretty much use it,” says Jones.

Natural gas harvest methods like hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, have helped create a large supply of the fuel. That translates into low prices for consumers. Jones shows me his version of the average monthly gas bill in Utah.

“This is how it kind of breaks down through the year.  So in the summer you see, if you’re paying your actual usage you’re less than twenty dollars, and If you are in the highest months you’re somewhere up in the 110, 120 dollar range,” says Jones.

Loveless says the key difference between these two energy sources is natural gas energy must be created while geothermal ground energy already exists.

“It sounds kind of hokey, but it’s not a closed system.  You’re putting one unit of energy in and the other four units are coming from the ground,” says Loveless.

Because of this, geothermal systems operate well above the 100% efficiency mark while the best natural gas systems only come close to it.  Despite this advantage, Chad Jones doesn’t see geothermal as a competitor any time soon.

“We consider alternative energies more of a supplement, and natural gas as the foundation for the foreseeable future, just because prices are low and stable and production’s at record levels,” says Jones.

That’s the way most people see it too.  Remember that $19,000 installation cost?  The truth is Loveless owns one of only a few hundred residential heat pumps Orem based company Utah Geothermal has installed along the Wasatch Front since 2008.

Cary Smith is the co-owner of Sound Geothermal and Chairman of ASHRAE Technical Committee 6.8 who wrote the manual on geothermal technology.  He says geothermal technology could spread in Utah if both homeowners and financial institutions find an incentive to do so. 

“The real solution is financial mechanism in the market, and I think that that’s coming, and it’s going to involve multiple technologies at the same time,” says Smith.

John Loveless saw these advantages for his young family of seven living in a normal home.  The invisibility of these technologies made sense to him and became part of a quest to transform his home into net-zero energy.

“I really like the term golden goose.  There are several that are real and solar panels is one and geothermal is one.  They’re sources that give you more than what you put into them,” says Loveless.

Loveless can’t wait until March when he can actually see the first year return on his newest energy investment.    

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