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Wyandotte Geothermal

Posted to MichiganNow.org on Friday, December 17, 2010

INTRO: The renewable energy sector slowed down this year after it boomed in 2008 and 2009. One technology rarely talked about is geothermal heating and cooling. A downriver Detroit town is betting millions of dollars on geothermal. They plan on saving money, increasing property values and decreasing pollution. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus went in for a look.

The sounds of an old industry are still heard on these tracks between Detroit and Toledo. But Wyandotte is trying to leap into the future. It’s hired Paul Deporter to install geothermal heat.

“It’s a new technology people are scared of. You got to see it done first. You got to see it and let the neighbor brag. Then it catches on. That’s why we’re thankful for the City of Wyandotte for taking a chance and doing this… seeing the big picture and the savings they’re gonna have.”

The head of municipal services is Melanie McCoy, a mechanical engineer. She and Dave Congden from Hardin Manufacturing have their hands on a plastic pipe. It’s 4 inches in diameter. It’s sticking out of the ground.

“There’s a cap at the bottom so water will be in this and it will be circulating 600 feet down and 600 feet up. That’s where it gets the cooling or the heating. So that basically the water going into the heat pump is going to be 51 degrees twelve months a year.”

“But we want 70 degree heat. How is 51 degrees going to be good enough for us?”

“Same way your refrigerator works. Your refrigerator has got a refrigerant in it. Refrigerant will turn to gas and go back to a liquid. During that process it generates heat or absorbs heat. So it’s a heat transferrant. That’s what refrigerant does. Same with the heat pump. The heat pump has refrigerant in it. It has the same coil operation. All it’s doing is using what energy it needs to out of the water to convert it to getting your house warmer or getting your house cooler by transferring heat.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gave Michigan $224 million this year. Wyandotte got $8 million. The city is using some of it to re-insulate low income homes and equip them with geothermal. Melanie McCoy walks across the yard to a side door of the house. Like most on the street, it’s a modest bungalow from the 1930’s and ‘40’s.

“The geothermal is operating in here and we started operating it today I believe.”

A well can cost $8,000. And Wyandotte is financing it. Homeowners will make $50 monthly payments. The machine that replaces your gas furnace can cost $12,000. Dave Congden, of Hardin Manufacturing, explains what they do.

“Heat pump sits in the same area as your furnace did. Now that takes care of your heating and cooling and with the right hooks, at least 70% of your hot water.”

100 miles from Wyandotte, Kelvin Potter fires up his tractor in Bath Township. He gathered up downed trees that would have been chipped or burned, like ash infested by the ash borer. He cut them on his own saw mill. He built a 3 story timber frame house, mainly by himself.

“I have a propane furnace. It cost me $1,000 at the local building center. It was pretty easy to install. It’s a simple machine.”

Most of the time though, Potter skips the propane. He says who you gonna call when your geothermal heat pump breaks. He prefers feeding his wood burning furnace. He was in his living room this week, being the stay at home dad for his 3 month old and 3 year old. It’s a role reversal for this normally “can do” Michigan man.

“The more expensive they can make energy the better alternative energy looks. So geothermal might be close and it might be cost effective now but the equipment is so expensive that the payback on it…. I think the only thing tipping in its favor are the rebates and I don’t know how long that happens.”

It happens until 2016. The federal government will give you back 30% of what you pay for wind, solar or geothermal on your house. The new Director of Strategy in the Snyder Administration is Bill Rustem. He put geothermal in his house years ago.

“It’s been great. It saved us money. We figured our payback time was seven years. You have to invest more up front. We’ve been there fifteen years so we’ve had eight years of savings.”

Back in Wyandotte, Dave Congden makes his final sales pitch.

“For a home of about 1,500 square feet you’re looking at an average of $2,500 a year for their combined energy bill. I’m gonna make that about $600.”

So for anyone with $15,000 and the belief that energy prices are going up, the first step is to get a calculator and run the numbers.

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