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Why Geothermal?

Why Geothermal? In a word- comfort. Comfort was a common theme at the IGSHPA (International Ground Source Heat Pump Association) conference held in Las Vegas in October. This year noted industry experts and professionals presented on topics ranging from marketing to state of the art technological breakthroughs. Several speakers at the conference explained, technically, why Geothermal is comfortable.

In the context of traditional HVAC systems, comfort usually refers to feeling satisfied with respect to temperature and humidity regardless of the weather outside. A properly installed geothermal system will be comfortable. Consistent, even temperatures and humidty control are just a small part of why GHP’s  have a long track record of satisfied customers. Having lived and worked in Geothermal buildings for over 18 years, I think there are other, equally compelling reasons why Geo is “comfortable”.

1. Comfort that utility bills will be low. There is a certain financial peace of mind that comes from the technical fact that, for every unit of energy purchased from the local utility, Mother Nature will kick in several more units free of charge! In heating this results in efficiencies that often exceed 400%! Compare this to the maximum efficiency that could even theoretically be achieved by the fossil fuel burning systems- 100%. In cooling the expected 30 to 50 percent advantage of Geo comes because rejecting the interior building heat to the cooler earth temperatures is a much more efficient method of heat exchange than using the warmer outside air.

2.Comfort that you will not be on a first name basis with the dispatcher at the local heating company. Again, a system installed by qualified professionals will typically not require even yearly maintenance. Regular attention to filter changing is all that a homeowner need worry about in the short term. Commercial buildings may require some other maintenance associated with large systems, but far less than any other comparable HVAC system. Unlike traditional air cooled systems, the change of seasons does not present any particular issues because the equipment for most GHP systems is typically installed inside the house or building and not subject to extreme weather conditions. [click to continue…]

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Carbon Dioxide Milestone Passed at Mauna Loa

By John Turley

N.O.A.A. scientists reported on May 9th that carbon dioxide had reached an average daily level of 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time since they began tracking it 55 years ago.  The reading was taken at the Mauna Loa meteorological observatory in Hawaii, a site originally chosen for its distance from both urban and forest influences.  Carbon dioxide is one of the main greenhouse gases associated with the global warming debate.  The milestone went almost unnoticed by the mainstream media, but did not get by former Vice President Al Gore, who took the opportunity to post (paraphrasing) that global warming resulting from the buildup of greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere was the cause of climatological disasters like the recent flooding in Australia, Superstorm Sandy, and last year’s severe droughts.

Since Charles Keeling began overseeing the collection of carbon dioxide data in 1958 at Mauna Loa, C02 has increased from 280 ppm to its present record level.  Keeling, a renowned professor of oceanography at Scripps Institute, became famous for the Keeling curve, a graphical representation of the trend.

The Keeling Curve

The Keeling Curve

 

To put this in perspective, The IEA (International Energy Agency) forecasts in the “World Energy Outlook”  that CO2 must be limited to 450 ppm to have an 80% probability of average global temperatures rising only 2 degrees Celsius by 2050.

The IEA recently reported that there have been minimal gains in reducing carbon dioxide emissions over the past 20 years despite an estimated 2 trillion dollar investment in renewable energy technologies over the same period.   Progress from the implementation of renewable energy sources is being countered by the continued importance of fossil fuels to energy production, particularly the use of coal in the developing economies.

To graphically chart this, the IEA  created the “Carbon Intensity Index” which plots tons of carbon dioxide released per unit of energy supplied by the energy sector against percentage changes in average global temperatures.

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By John Turley

A local school district in Ohio recently scrapped plans to employ ground source heat pumps in a new school slated to be built this year.  The mechanical engineer, with the district’s blessing, chose instead a traditional boiler/tower water source heat pump system.     The decision was based on recent gas bill information from an existing school of similar size nearby.  The engineer’s analysis, based on trending current gas prices over the life of the building reportedly put the breakeven point on the estimated cost premium for Geothermal too far into the future.  Is this shortsighted? Maybe.  The history of natural gas prices over the past 30 years has been characterized by wild price swings, based on factors such as production, demand and weather.

What has changed?  Why would a school district lock into a fuel source that could fluctuate greatly, from a cost standpoint, over the building’s expected 50 year life? The answer lies in the growing evidence that certain shale rich areas, like Ohio, sit on incredible long term reserves of oil and natural gas that are now producible using hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) technologies. Some say these new sources of natural gas could mean low prices for decades to come- or even longer.  Whether or not this is true will depend on actual production and competition for this resource from other industries, some of which are in their infancy.  Selling gas to the HVAC markets was an easy early market for the producers of the gas “bonanza” because the infrastructure was already in place.  The natural price reaction to increased supply was, of course, lower prices.

Ohio is just beginning to develop its shale resources.  There have been 268 shale wells drilled in Ohio to date with just 76 in production.  It is estimated that there will be 2,250 wells drilled by 2015!  The impact shale gas will have on the payback calculations for ground source heat pumps will depend on energy markets, the mix of oil and gas products ultimately produced, and environmental and regulatory factors

Drilling Rig in Carroll County, Ohio- Google Images

Drilling Rig in Carroll County, Ohio- Google Images

Indeed, the evidence points to some tremendous potential for natural gas.  According to the EIA (Energy Information Administration), production of natural gas (total US) from shale wells increased from 1,990,145 million cubic feet in 2007 to 8.500,983 million cubic feet in 2011, a factor of more than 4.  Over the same period, the price of natural gas delivered to commercial customers (average U.S.) decreased from $11.34 to $8.92, or over 21%.  Recent commercial prices in Ohio have been even lower.  The data reflects the production impact of states like Texas, North Dakota and Pennsylvania that have been fracking shale formations for several years, and does not include a significant contribution from Ohio over this period.  Natural gas, once described as a “bridge” fuel to other power sources, is now being described as a “destination” fuel, especially for electricity production, where it is more desirable than coal because it burns cleaner, resulting in a smaller carbon footprint.

Reason 1. The Gas/Oil Product Mix

The market for shale gas will be impacted by many factors.  One factor will be the type of gas actually found and produced. The dry methane used in gas- fired HVAC equipment is just one of the products being captured as a result of the fracking boom.  In addition to methane, oil and “wet” gases (butane, propane, etc), used in other markets, also make up a large portion of the current production mix.  The ultimate resource mix is not known at this time. [click to continue…]

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