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From the ground up

More commercial projects show interest in geothermal energy

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Print this page by Nicole Anderson Ellis

Marty Felps is a second-generation heating man. He’s worked in the industry since the 1960s, but it wasn’t until 1982 that he installed his first geothermal heat pump (GHP). Today Felps owns Richmond’s Delta Temp Inc., which specializes in GHP installation. He’s been ringside for the explosive growth in energy-efficient heating.  “Ten years ago we started to see exponential growth,” says Felps.  “In the last three years, it’s gone really crazy.” 

Yet, of the 500 geothermal units Felps has installed in Virginia, only a handful went in commercial projects. 

“There are just not a lot of geothermal commercial projects,” notes Perry Morrow, president of Brandt Engineering in Midlothian. Brandt designed geothermal systems for Boar’s Head Inn in Charlottesville and a speculative office complex in Henrico County.  And when the firm built a new headquarters, it chose a geothermal pump. 

Yet across the country and in Virginia, the commercial sector has been slow in tapping into Mother Earth as a source of heating and cooling. Until now. With rising electricity rates and new federal tax incentives, commercial real estate is taking a more serious look at these underground systems. 

Geothermal heat pumps exploit the stability of solar energy stored a few feet below ground. While surface air fluctuates seasonally, the temperature here remains near 55 degrees year-round.  GHP systems tap into that constancy through a pumping system that relies on seamless high-density polyethylene pipes (where destructive roots can’t take hold) that pushes water through. Depending on the season, that water is warmed or cooled and then used to moderate a building’s climate. 

GHPs have proven to outlast conventional climate control systems.  They also require less maintenance and use a fraction of the electricity, 30 to 60 percent less, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Virginians paid an average of 7.52 cents per kilowatt hour (kwh) in 2000.  By 2007 the rate was 8.74.  This year it hit 10.63, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

Its data shows that more than 35,500 GHPs were purchased nationwide in 2000.  By 2007, the figure had more than doubled to 86,000, with 9,000 GHPs shipped to Virginia.

But only 37 percent of these systems went to the commercial sector. 

“A lot of developers don’t care what the utility costs are because they’re passed on to tenants,” explains John Parker, senior mechanical engineer at Brandt. 

Plus commercial electricity rates tend to trail residential costs. They were 6.38 (per kwh) in 2007 — more than two cents less than residential rates. 

So there’s less incentive to invest in a geothermal pump, which costs more than a traditional system — roughly $2,500 per ton of capacity, according to the DOE.  Drilling for a GPS can add another $10,000 or so, depending on the substrate. 
Still, commercial GHPs finally seem poised for takeoff.  Commercial power rates topped 8 cents this year. In addition, the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 created a 10 percent investment tax credit to businesses that install GHP systems. Throw in demand from tenants to reduce their carbon footprint, and it’s going to be harder for commercial to stay on the fence with this form of clean, green energy.


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