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Juneau couple harnesses geothermal energy

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 7, 2013 at 9:01 am •  Published: April 7, 2013

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Julie Bednarski and John Kajdan scrawled down notes on a piece of junk mail about quotes for earthmovers, heat pumps and calculations.

That junk mail was a note mailed from a local bar and addressed to the former residents of the couples' home on Birch Lane in the Mendenhall Valley, to inform them about birthday coupons. Bednarski and Kajdan are financially savvy, but unlikely to care about whether or not a bar knows their birthday. So when they started compiling quotes and references for a geothermal heating system they were looking to install, a system that not only can be a money saver but also an environmentally friendly move, it makes sense they would use unwanted mail to collect their notes.

There are a couple of types of geothermal energy. High-grade geothermal energy is the heat formed from the pressure of the earth. Water is turned to steam, and its energy can be harnessed. Around Fairbanks for example, green houses are powered by high-grade geothermal energy.

Then there's low-grade geothermal energy, subsurface heat. Using the temperature of the ground as energy for residential or commercial heating purposes is what people are generally referring to when they talk about geothermal heating systems.

Bednarski and Kajdan had an old boiler. They had to replace it. They went to the annual Juneau Home Show in March 2012 to look for some leads on replacements. This is where they were introduced to the possibility of upgrading their boiler and baseboard heating system to geothermal.

They returned with various brochures, demeaning the intellect of the average pamphlet reader with fluffy verbiage like, "Isn't it good to know that all the energy you need to heat and cool your home is beneath your feet?," ''Choosing geothermal becomes the right choice!," and photos of mullet-sporting blue-uniformed men with stitched name tags accompanied with captions like, "In our state-of-the-art production facility, highly trained workers assemble every unit with care," and "All in all, you can't buy a better engineered heat pump."

But Bednarski and Kajdan aren't fools. Kajdan's an engineer and Bednarski is a fisheries biologist. They began doing their own research, which turned out to be one of the biggest parts of the process to replace their boiler. Money was a key factor.

The state offered a rebate up to $10,000 for home energy improvements. On top of that, there is 30 percent federal tax credit on the total cost of purchasing and installing a geothermal heating system. Those two financial incentives, combined with the fact they had to replace their boiler anyhow, made the project feasible. Kajdan also estimated that their total annual savings could be around $3,000.

Add to that the environmental benefits, they would no longer need diesel fuel, there would be no carbon emissions, and as Bednarski said, a geothermal system is just more efficient, it was a clear choice.

"Heat pumps are more efficient than an electric boiler," Bednarski said. "With a heat pump you can get twice as much to 4.5 times as much heat energy. With an electric boiler you get only as much heat energy out as electricity used. So we were starting out from zero. We had to create all our own heat. That's what's so great about (a geothermal system). You're using energy that already exists."

In an interview before the work had been initiated, Kajdan presented some of his calculations.

"If we replace the boiler with a new boiler, than the break even cost, the point below which it would be cost effective to do, is $10,506," Kajdan said. "And that's basically what our out of pocket costs would be with recouping the rebate and tax credit. One of the problems we're having is that electrical energy is cheaper than burning diesel, so as people's systems age, they'll likely replace them with an electrical system, which will burden the system more. By using (a geothermal system) you reduce the electrical demand."

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