By George Harvey
In January, Renewable Energy World published an article by geothermal expert Jay Egg, Can Natural Gas Giants Switch to Geothermal? (http://bit.ly/NG-to-geothermal) In it, Egg makes a good case that geothermal heating may be an excellent path to continued profitability for natural gas (NG) utilities.
Geothermal heating has considerable economic advantages over NG. Geothermal heat is as carbon-free as the electricity that powers it, which it uses very efficiently. Its ongoing costs are low and much more stable than those of fossil fuels. And, it can run on renewably generated electricity.
We should describe how geothermal heating works for those who do not know. It is available nearly anywhere the sun warms the soil. The temperatures a few feet underground are fairly stable. We can get water to that same temperature by running it through a loop of buried pipe and then use it to heat or cool a house. The water can then be returned to the loop for reuse.
Because geothermal systems move heat, instead of creating it, they can be very efficient, both for energy and for cost. The U.S. Department of Energy rates it as our most efficient heating technology.
Environmentally, geothermal heat pumps are superior to fossil fuels in every respect. Geothermal heat is very quiet and comfortable. It does not need to consume water. Geothermal equipment is long-lasting. No equipment is exposed to the elements, so the system is not likely to be damaged by weather. Geothermal heat can be a key part of a system for complete energy self-sufficiency.
Some people feel that the initial cost of geothermal is too high. Many of them think the same of photovoltaics and wind power. Such thinking is badly outdated. The cost of installing a geothermal heating system might actually turn out not to be any higher than that of installing a complete new oil-burning heating system. Oil heat requires a tank, which is usually contained in the building or might have to be buried. A new natural gas system can cost even more, as pipeline connections can be expensive.
For many potential customers, natural gas is not even available, because there is no pipeline in their region at all, or perhaps not in the street they live on. The geothermal system, by comparison, really only requires that a building has electricity and sits on the ground.
Geothermal could be a problem for a NG utility, because customers may be quite capable of defecting to it for heat. Even if the utility sells both, the customer who moves from NG to less expensive geothermal heat will cost the utility revenues.
Fortunately for NG utilities, they can actually take advantage of the geothermal systems initial cost. Though anyone who can afford heat could afford to pay off the financing of a geothermal system, some balk at the idea of spending $10,000 or $15,000 on geothermal piping. This gives a utility a possible new service, providing geothermal systems under contract.
For NG utilities, expanding into geothermal heating can bring customers who have no access to gas pipelines. It would be hard to overstate the importance of this.
We contacted Jay Egg to see what the latest developments were. He replied with these notes:
“In 2016, Ontario released their Climate Change Action Plan (CCAP), which calls for sweeping reductions in GHG emissions, specifically calling out NG, and actually outlaws combustion heating in residential and light commercial buildings by 2030. That’s only 13 years.
“Because of the great work and powerful influence of Martin Luymes in his positions as Director of Programs and Relations at the Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Institute of Canada (HRAI), the ‘Geofication Committee’ was formed, which consisted of David Hatherton, Dr. Stan Reitsma (a prominent geothermal expert), and Jay Shepherd (legal counsel). Over the last year or so, these folks have worked tirelessly to properly represent the geothermal industry story to Ontario. Their success may be evident in the new direction that a major gas utility, Enbridge Energy has taken toward geothermal utility development. Enbridge played a large role in the recent OGA Conference.
“The Geofication Committee was the key in illustrating to legislators the cost of further subsidizing pipelines for 68 additional communities came at the hefty price tag of C$25,600 for each NG connection on average. The effects of these efforts in Ontario and their neighbor to the South, New York can’t be overstated. This is the type of efforts that often lead the way for programs that gain national acceptance.
“Bill Nowak, NY-GEO’s Executive Director attended the OGA event and was given the opportunity to say a few words. NY –GEO’s Conference is coming up on April 19-20, 2017. This event promises great progress for the industry, similar to OGA’s great efforts.”