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Geothermal Ain't Gee-Whiz

Jennifer V. Hughes in Green Ideas

Sbiroli is the principal of Ventura Land Corporation, which developed The Modern, and though committed to using geothermal energy, he admits he wasn't prepared for how hard it would be to cut through red tape, wait for permits and simply find contractors experienced in this new field.

Geothermal energy, which uses no fossil fuel such as coal or oil, works by using the constant temperature of the earth to heat buildings in winter and cool them in the summer. Greg Lampman, project manager for the New York State Energy Reduction Development Authority (NYSERDA), says one of the most common geothermal systems fir buildings is a " standing-column well," in which one or more wells, eight to 10 inches diameter, are dug near a building's property, often on the sidewalks. The wells go down about 1,500 feet, where the groundwater is about 50 degrees. Electricity is used to pump that well water into a device known as a heat pump.

Getting Pumped

In winter, the heat pump pulls the heat measured in BTUs, or British Thermal Units from that relatively warm water and diverts it to a building. There it reaches a comfortable 72 degrees, because the heat pump concentrates BTUs. In summer, the pump is reversed and so sucks in that 50-degree water, which is now relatively cool, and sends cool water or air through a building's system. While electricity is used to power a geothermal set-up, it's but a fraction of the amount needed for an electric heating system.

Some of the problems with geothermal at the Modern appeared at the outset. "First of all, the difficulty of getting the necessary city and state clearances and permits to dig a well into Manhattan bedrock on the sidewalks of a Manhattan street are huge," and took him nine months, Sbiroli says. He also had a hard time hiring a superintendent for the building, since few candidates wanted to deal with a complex system involving at least one heat pump in each unit. Sbiroli also felt it prudent to install a backup electric-heat system.

Sbiroli estimates his geothermal system cost about $120,000 more than a traditional system, but will save about $600 per year per apartment. NYSERDA estimates you can save 30 to 60 percent on your cooling costs, though heating savings are more modest. And if The Modern were to go condo, Sbiroli says, geothermal would be a good marketing point: "We eliminated the cost of oil [from] the equation." The economics may not work in older buildings with steam heat and two-pipe hot-water systems with old pipes, he cautions. "It's doable on paper but the cost involved would be off the charts."

Contractor? They Don't Even Know Her

He also notes that one big geothermal drawback is how few contractors have experience with it. NYSERDA is addressing that issue, says president and CEO Paul Tonko, by together with local community colleges "creating the workforce needed to carry this technology into the market."

NYSERDA, does not, however, offer specific geothermal incentives. However, installing geothermal is one way a building can get cash incentives under the agency's Multifamily Performance Program, which requires an overall 20 percent reduction in energy consumption. Buildings can also apply for low-interest NYSERDA loans to take on geothermal projects.

For all the long-term economic benefits, however, it was the environmental impact that ultimately motivated the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church to embark on a geothermal project at the 190-year-old campus in Manhattan's Chelsea Square.

The project began about four years ago because the 20-building campus needed to upgrade its aging infrastructure, including an old oil-fired boiler and window air-conditioning units, says executive vice president Maureen Burnley. Construction began in summer 2007. Steam heat radiators are being replaced with fan coil units that will blow hot or cool air into the building, and 20 geothermal wells that will come online in three phases. The project's price tag is $15 million, financed through capital fundraising and loans.

Burnley projects a return on investment in about 15 years, though that time may be even shorter: When that return-on-investment projection was calculated, heating oil was $1 a gallon; it is now $3 per gallon. "We spend about $450,000 a year on heating and cooling for the whole complex," she says. "That is going to get down to less than a third" by the time the geothermal system is up and running."

Burnley adds she was unprepared for the city's bureaucratic difficulties. "Each time we thought we had done everything, another city agency weighed in," she says.

"We're doing this because we think it's the right thing to do for the environment and the long term benefit of the institution," Burnley says. Yet in the process, what began as an economic and environmental decision became something they felt was simply "morally right. That," she notes, "has been the only thing that could sustain us through all the obstacles."

Adapted from Habitat March 2008. For the complete article and more, join our Archive >>

Art by Marcellus Hall

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