Geothermal can cut fuel bills and create jobs, Sanders says

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HA Manosh, the well drilling company based in Morrisville, has been installing geothermal heating systems since around 1980. But in recent years the cost of fossil fuels has produced a sharp increase in the demand, according to Nick Manosh, the company’s vice president.

On Monday Manosh joined U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and others he invited for a briefing on the benefits of bringing geothermal technology to more homes and buildings in Vermont.

“A homeowner will save about 30 to 50 percent on fuel costs,” Manosh projected during a press conference at Sanders’ Burlington office. He was joined by Jeff Williams of Spafford and Sons Water Wells, James Ashley of Green Mountain Geothermal, and John Caulo, acting vice president at Champlain College, which has begun to transition to geothermal heating for its academic and residential buildings.

Sanders, a member of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee, frequently touts Vermont’s role “as a leader in trying to transform this country’s energy system.” At the briefing he argued that this involves helping to reverse global warning by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, cutting fuel bills, and “creating jobs here in Vermont and not in Saudi Arabia. We need to take a hard look at all types of renewable and sustainable energies.”

The United States currently spends about $350 billion annually on importing oil, while 83 percent of Vermont’s heating needs are handled with fossil fuels, he noted. Vermonters spend about $1 billion to heat homes and buildings, and 80 percent of that money leaves the state.

Geothermal systems have tremendous potential, Sanders said, and they are already helping Vermont home and building owners save money. Although geothermal energy typically refers to super-heated gas or very hot liquids in the earth, ground source heat pumps installed in a building can harvest lower temperatures in the 45 degree to 55 degree range.

Caulo discussed the first geothermal project on the Champlain College campus, the renovation of Perry Hall, a stately home that has become a welcome center for the expanding campus. “We drilled a 500 to 600 foot well, and use geothermal energy associated with groundwater to heat and cool the building,” he explained. The result has been a 65 percent saving in annual energy use.

“Given current costs that works out to be about $45,000 to $50,000 a year,” Caulo said. “It’s been a success for us and we’re using that moving forward with other projects.”

Geothermal energy isn’t new. Thousands of years ago indigenous peoples in the U.S. used geothermal hot springs. The first geothermal-based refrigeration was developed in the 1890s, noted Williams, whose company moved into the ground source heat pumping business in 1995.

Boise, Idaho, installed the world’s first district heating system in 1892, piping water from hot springs to town buildings. The U.S. currently has 17 district heating systems, with many more operating around the world.

“A ground source heat pump harvests the heat from the earth, puts it into the building at a useable temperature so you can then distribute throughout the dwelling and completely heat and cool any building,” Williams explained. “The better building that you create, the better this technology lends itself to it.”

More Vermont home and business owners are seeing the benefits, he added. “Most anyone who is building a new house today is at least investigating the opportunities of putting in a ground source heat pump.”

Williams and the others praised Sanders’ efforts to promote sustainable energy sources. They pointed specifically to a 30 percent federal tax credit that can make installing a geothermal system competitive with conventional heating.

According to recent Energy Information Administration data, virtually all geothermal systems installed in the U.S. are also manufactured domestically. Sanders calls this a win-win situation – for the environment, consumers and job creation.

A geothermal system can cost around $30,000 to install, but with the tax credit homeowners potentially save $10,000. “That gets you more in line with a typical fossil fuel system,” Manosh explained. “But in geothermal you have a payback.” If the cost of heating a home is $3,000 a year, for example, the geothermal system will be paid off in less than seven years, and up to two-thirds of the heating cost will be eliminated.

“We not only have a nice natural resource of groundwater underneath us,” Manosh noted, “we’re holding temperature of 48 to 52 degrees down below us. It’s a beautiful storage tank that can naturally be used.”

He added that geothermal and solar energy systems can be linked. “If they are grid-tied solar systems the extra electricity made by the solar system actually pays for the use of geothermal pumps,” he said.

Sanders provided a list of Vermont buildings already utilizing geothermal energy systems. They include the Veterans Home and a state office building in Bennington, Stoweflake Mountain Resort, St. Johnsbury Academy, the Vietnam Veterans rest stop on 1-89 in Sharon, a Vermont Army National Guard building in Jericho, Mississquoi National Wildlife Refuge in Franklin County, and the Border Patrol office in Derby.

In the Burlington area geothermal systems are also being used at the Lawrence Barnes and C.P. Smith public schools, as well as in two Vermont Air National Guard buildings at the airport. They are in the process of being installed at the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington, St. Michael’s College, and the Sutton School in the Northeast Kingdom.

“People are getting inventive,” said Ashley. “There are many ways they can access the earth in order to take this available heat from the sun. That’s all it is, stored energy from the sun.”

Geothermal systems offer a “tremendous opportunity to begin switching away from fossil fuels,” he added. Although the industry is unregulated and not all businesses do an excellent job, he predicted that a partnership program that improves business practices is likely to evolve.

The United States currently generates about 15 billion kilowatt hours of geothermal power a year, the equivalent of burning 25 million barrels of oil. It is currently the fourth largest source of renewable electricity, after hydroelectricity, biomass and wind power. One resource assessment suggests that nine Western states have the potential to provide over 20 percent of national electricity needs with geothermal energy.

Not every is familiar with geothermal, Sanders noted. “But I’m happy to say it’s a technology that is growing rapidly in our state.”

Greg Guma

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  • Appreciate the comments on geothermal as a renewable energy source that can save large amounts on energy bills. Source Energy Group has a program for large institutions and commercial facilities to ‘lease to own’ large geothermal and other renewable systems. Funding is for projects of larger size, over 3 Million.

  • Adding geothermal systems to existing houses is very expensive.
    Building new houses so they function with geothermal systems is also very expensive.

    It is best to build new energy efficient houses and apartment buildings that need no, or minimal heating systems.
    In Germany, such energy efficient houses and apartment buildings have been built during the past 30 years. A 1.5 kW thermostatically-controlled electric heater is sufficient for a 2,000 sq ft house. Google Passivhaus Standard and get all the answers.

  • Alex Barnham

    The groundwater is increasingly being jeopardized by deep well…hopefully we can avoid damage to the aquifers.

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