Is geothermal heating the future of sustainable building?

When planning a sustainable home project, there are some cost-saving tips to consider before you break ground.  Saving you up to 70% on heating, cooling and hot water costs.  Utilizing geothermal heating is fast-becoming a popular choice in green energy methods. 

We sat down with Alejandro Martinez, Sustainability Manager of the Sustainability Center in Hammond, Louisiana to ask him how geothermal heating can change the way we think about sustainable building.

Sustainability for our growing energy needs

There are ninety wells on the north side of Ascension Hall. We are working to add one hundred and thirty wells, where Zachary Taylor was located. A total of two hundred and twenty wells at 300′ down the ground.

Q: What is the planned use of the wells?

Martinez: We are using the wells by the two new dorms on the south campus, and they work for cooling and heating.

Q: Is there a cost benefit to using a geothermal well system for heating and cooling on campus?

Martinez:  This system is very efficient.  Normally in a regular building, for heat or cool a square foot, we spend three dollars per year.  With this system, we spend 92 cents.  And we save a dollar and a few cents every time.  These prices can change according to the location in the states as well as oil price.  In general, we can say that this system is projected to reduce energy costs by more than 50 percent.

Q: How does geothermal heating compare to other green energy systems?  Is it more universal to a variety of climates such as southern Louisiana?

Martinez: This is the most efficient system for Louisiana.  More than solar panels, wind turbines or biomass.  If you go to California, where you have a lot of moving air, or like Texas, you might want to do wind turbines to generate energy.  Or other places, like Nevada or Arizona, where you have more opportunity to capture energy from the sun it would be best for solar panels.  But in the case of Louisiana, for the conditions that we have, a geothermal is the most efficient system. Besides, if we have a natural disaster like a hurricane or flood, we don’t have to worry about our system failing.  We have all the other kinds systems on campus, but this one is the most efficient.

Geothermal heating has a long history

Geothermal heating is a technique that humans have made use of since the Paleolithic era.  One of the first major breakthroughs in geothermal technology was harnessing the heating power of natural hot springs that come from deep in the earth’s surface.  Use of these natural springs was a relatively easy way to source hot water, a luxury for early humans.  As times evolved and technology progressed, we now capture the steam from these springs below the earth’s surface by digging a well, known as a “heat sink.”    

Richard Woods, CEO of Albany Woodworks speaks to students about the importance of sustainability.

The earth provides natural heat throughout the year, and the temperatures at certain depths are very stable.  Being LEED-Certified is a big carrot for commercial building and geothermal heating was adopted early by businesses with a solid plan for green initiatives.  For high temperature steam or water the wells are dug very deep in the earth’s crust.   The deep wells for steam driven heat and power are a perfect fit for large-scale commercial facilities, cutting overhead costs and extending the longevity of the modern business.

With advances in the geothermal technology, pre-heating and pre-cooling units have a smaller footprint and enough power to be incorporated in building homes sustainable and green.  For moderate temperatures for daily use of and average size home, the heat sinks are quite shallow.  Home owners are able to have heat sinks placed into the ground for pre-heating or pre-cooling air or water before it enters the traditional climate control system.  Harnessing the stable temperature of the earth, it is the future in sustainable building.     

Hot topics for residential heating and cooling

Modern uses of geothermal heating can include a variety of cost saving uses:

  • Direct use of hot water
  • Power generation
  • Ground source heating and cooling

The most common of these uses is ground source heating and cooling which can be optimized in many ways.  Electricity can be readily produced with steam or hot water captured below the Earth’s surface.  It is sent through pipes to a power a steam turbine which in turn run the generators to produce electricity.  For buildings where only heating is needed, a single moderate-to-low temperature well can produce enough resources to heat multiple buildings or in some instances and entire residential community.

To heat or cool individual homes or buildings, a shallow heat sink can provide the geothermal power to heat and cool.  These are becoming more and more popular for residential use for long-term energy savings as geothermal heating and cooling are extremely cost-effective

Lower-temperature, shallow-ground geothermal resources are used by geothermal heat pumps to heat and cool individual buildings. Such uses of geothermal energy are becoming increasingly popular as an option for new home construction by those who seek long-term energy savings, as heating and cooling via a geothermal heat pump is very cost-effective and have low impact on natural resources and add minimal emission levels. 

About the Sustainability Center

From the Sustainability Center website: “The Outreach Center is an educational learning experience designed to introduce sustainable initiatives including a geothermal heating and cooling system, solar thermal panels, solar photo-voltaic panels, wind turbine, biomass electrical generator, and water reclamation ponds.  Visitors will venture into a non-conventional, energy-neutral classroom and delve into the internal workings of each renewable-energy system.” Visit the Sustainability Center’s informational website here.

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