New advancements in geothermal technology make it a viable option for almost any building, the chief executive of a Colorado-based geothermal company said this week.
Thermal Energy Corp. CEO Buzz Johnson said geothermal typically is considered for high occupancy buildings or those that are in use 24 hours a day, but his company also looks for “nontraditional” application for the technology.
Johnson said ground-source heat pumps used to harness geothermal energy have helped a commercial dairy in New Mexico slash its electricity usage from 239 kilowatts to 76 kilowatts.
Johnson and engineer Greg Tinkler have been working with Western Farmers Electric Cooperative to identify ways the electricity provider can cut demand without adding new generating capacity. Western Farmers provides power to 23 rural electric cooperatives in Oklahoma and New Mexico.
The duo spoke Tuesday at Touchstone Energy Electric Cooperatives' 12th annual Emerging Technology Conference at Oklahoma City's Skirvin Hilton.
Mark Faulkenberry, manager of marketing and communications for Western Farmers, said geothermal can help reduce electricity demand and increase efficiency.
Johnson said the technology has been around for some time.
“It's not really black magic,” he said. “It's really quite well known.”
Tinkler, an engineer with LRB Engineers Inc. in Houston, said there are many types of geothermal systems available, but they all work like a battery.
“Just like a battery stores electrical charge, geothermal stores heat charge,” he said.
Tinkler said a geothermal loop field takes advantage of the stable temperature of the earth below a layer of insulating soil, making it easier to heat or cool a building.
“It costs us a whole lot more to go from 100 (degrees) to 72 than it does to go from (ground temperature of) 65 to 72,” he said. “That's where it affects you guys.”
Geothermal systems use a series of underground pipes to store heat or move it to the surface.
“It's a fairly simple system,” he said.
A 2010 report by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory indicated geothermal systems can cut electric bills by up to 48 percent while slashing carbon dioxide emissions by 45 percent.
Tinkler said a business such as a convenience store — with its long hours and heavy duty refrigerators — can make the switch to geothermal pay off in about six months. Residential systems usually break even in five to 15 years, depending on electricity use and costs.
Lubbock Christian University in Texas is installing geothermal systems that have allowed it to cut its utility costs while it has continued to add square footage to its campus, Tinkler said.
The school, which is about 60 percent geothermal, has reduced its electricity costs by 26 percent, while its natural gas costs are down 62 percent.
Tinkler said geothermal systems help regulate electricity usage throughout the year, making them a good fit with other renewables, notably solar. He said the technology also can be used to make electricity from heat and turn salt water into fresh water.
Johnson said geothermal is an ideal choice for businesses that use a lot of electricity, rely on obsolete heating and cooling systems or use propane or electricity for heat.
He said the amount of use a building gets is important in gauging the impact of a switch to geothermal.
Caddo Electric Cooperative, which is based in Binger, has turned to geothermal to reduce electricity demand in the summer.
The cooperative pays for ground-source heat pumps for interested customers, who are charged a monthly thermal energy cost, said Boyd Lee, director of marketing and member services.
Caddo also has struck a deal with Ideal Homes to build 270 geothermal homes in its territory over the next three years.
Lee said it is too soon to tell how Caddo's system will benefit from the geothermal program, but it is expected to shave 10 percent off the cooperative's electrical load over the next five to 10 years. That also will save customers from rate increases, he said.
Just like a battery stores electrical charge, geothermal stores heat charge.”