Technology of the Future or Technology for Today? A Look at Geothermal Energy for Today’s Modern Home

by Lauren Norris

***

In the early 1900s, the World’s Fair became the center of the world’s eye. The historic masses of spectators congregated in excitement, eager for the moment that they could see the newest technologies of the day that would make up the “world of tomorrow”.

“The eyes of the Fair are on the future — not in the sense of peering toward the unknown nor attempting to foretell the events of tomorrow and the shape of things to come, but in the sense of presenting a new and clearer view of today in preparation for tomorrow; a view of the forces and ideas that prevail as well as the machines.

Here are the materials, ideas, and forces at work in our world. These are the tools with which the World of Tomorrow must be made. They are all interesting and much effort has been expended to lay them before you in an interesting way. Familiarity with today is the best preparation for the future.”

 

NYWF pamphlet 1939-1940

So what would today’s future look like? One of today’s less known technologies is Geothermal Energy.

Geothermal energy is a new way to heat and cool your home year round, rendering the standard HVAC systems we pay for today obsolete. In every state across the country, hundreds of new companies and jobs are springing up to build and maintain the growing energy efficiency needs of our society. Essentially, by removing the need to consume outside resources and by using the natural resources available at our feet, we gain free energy. Of course, nothing in life is free; there are costs to build, install, and pump the energy. However, the costs needed to retain this source of energy will not be affected by international trade deals with rich tycoons, or by foreign princes with private interests of wealth (at the common person’s expense). For some people, geothermal systems are a familiar but obscure brochure, a seemingly unrealistic option advertised over the last few decades. When it was introduced, the installation cost was not nearly as affordable as the standard systems that were available at the time. However in today’s world, where solar panels are the most affordable means of energy and oil is becoming increasingly limited and expensive, it will be critical to utilize a new source of sustainable and affordable energy if we are to maintain the luxuries we have come to expect.

 

Geothermal energy is energy sourced from the the earth’s core, which maintains a constant temperature. It is clean and sustainable, ranging from shallow ground to hot water and rocks just a few miles below us. “Wells”, are either dug or drilled at depths where the temperature is desirable (in some areas just 6 to 8ft deep for constant temperatures of 55-60° F year round). Then tubes are fed through the holes, and either air or liquid can then be pumped through the tubes. The pressurized air or water is naturally heated or cooled by the ground, and comes back at the desired temperature. Geo (Earth) + thermal (heat) – energy is not exactly a new technology. Archaeological evidence shows that the first humans in North America used geothermal energy with hot springs for healing purposes. In 1904, Italian scientist Piero Ginori Conti invented the first geothermal electric power plant, which used steam to generate power. Today, power plants are not the only application for geothermal energy; many greenhouses and even some new homes, both across the world and in our own neighborhoods, run on this exciting and renewable resource.

 

Most of us are used to the standard HVAC systems that heat and cool our homes during the shifting seasons with gas, oil, or electric energy. Oil, a long time favorite of affordability, is a limited source of energy; therefore, as those wells dry up, so do wallets through skyrocketing prices. Oil is also known to have a destructive impact on our health and environment. As more and more countries implement fossil fuel-free policies, this source of energy becomes as ancient as the dinosaurs it is derived from. Natural gas has also picked up in popularity as a source of clean, affordable energy; however the method of extraction, known as “fracking,” has become controversial. Fracking has been known to pollute local water, contributing to the declining health of local residents, livestock and wildlife. It also causes small earthquakes as workers blast through the ground to access pockets of gas. These earthquakes are reportedly too small to be considered hazardous, but some claim that they might lead to the instigation of larger destructive events. Other hazards of our standard HVAC systems include the emissions of deadly carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds, and other combustion byproducts, which have lead to hundreds of deaths through poisoning and explosions. Electrical heating systems, while initially affordable and convenient for the budget-conscious consumer, are a fire hazard and can cause respiratory issues since they dry the air, not to mention a big draw on the electricity bill.

 

Affordability and convenience have long been the leading values in the comforts of our modern lifestyle, despite small risks to our health and environment. As much as we all would benefit from clean and sustainable energy, it means little to have the technology if no one can afford it. In addition, the new generation of homeowners is drowning in school debt, making it difficult to finance any updates for the typical homes on the market. Those with great credit have the option to apply for the FHA 203(K) or HomeStyle Renovations loans with their mortgage to fund the investment of energy efficient updates. Today, tax rebates, incentives, and grants have expanded to include clean renewable energies like solar and geothermal energy, making them more affordable for the average person. Up until December 2016, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act allowed a 30% tax credit for geothermal equipment; though no longer available, it is not the only one of its kind and will not be the last. Today, homes sold with these energy-efficient technologies are also of greater value on the market. Any home that can run and sustain itself, while negating monthly utility bills, will likely draw attention from a myriad of prospective buyers.

 

Therefore, despite the obvious benefits of the geothermic energy system, the deciding factor for many people is the greater apparent cost as opposed to the HVAC system. Geothermal installation costs can run up to $25,000 on a typical 2,500 square foot home, while the traditional HVAC can cost $6,000 to $12,000 to install. However, in most homes that do come with an HVAC system, the homeowner can expect to pay between $200-$1600 in repairs to the current system, depending on its state at the time of the sale. In order to upgrade to geothermal from an HVAC system, the new homeowner must pay the costs of installation; nonetheless, after government incentives are added, the resulting cost is not much more than for a standard system. This investment can generally be paid back within 7 years. Nationally, the average out-of-pocket expense to install a geothermal heating or cooling system is $6,534, with most homeowners spending between $3,474 and $12,655 with the help of loans and government incentives. This data is based on actual project costs as reported by HomeAdvisor.com members.

 

According to the US Department of Energy, the typical American family spends at least $2,000 per year on home electric bills. Heating, cooling and hot water costs combined make up over 70% of the typical electric bill. 

There is no doubt that, after the initial installation, a geothermal home system is significantly more affordable long-term than a standard HVAC system. Counting installation as well as any loan payments, it breaks even in 7-10 years. After this period, the geothermal system cuts down on bills and is cheaper to run than the traditional system would have been. As markets move toward energy efficiency and sustainability, the convenience of modern technology becomes increasingly attainable for the average homeowner. For some this seems like a technology for tomorrow, but tomorrow seems to be moving in sooner than we think.

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