Credit: Department of Energy

Eversource Ready To Begin Geothermal Heat Pump Trial In Massachusetts

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They may be obvious, but there are a lot of similarities between companies that distribute methane gas — often known as city gas — and companies that manufacture automobiles. Both are essentially prisoners of their own success, unable to move forward into the future because their business model is stuck in the past. There are some industry observers who think gas companies are uniquely equipped to transition to a new business model — delivering groundwater from geothermal wells to homes and business to supply the needs of ground source heat pumps.

According to RMI, geothermal heat pumps are a clean, renewable technology that helps a home or building stay comfortable in any season. It harnesses the constant temperature below the Earth’s surface to provide heating, cooling, and often hot water. Since geothermal is an abundant and renewable resource just beneath our feet, geothermal heat pumps are considered some of the most efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly HVAC and water-heating systems available. And because heat pumps simply move heat and don’t rely on combustion like a gas furnace or water heater does, they can reduce energy costs by up to 50% and produce zero direct emissions that contribute to air pollution and climate change. If scaled up across the country, ground source heat pumps could dramatically reduce the amount of electricity needed to convert buildings from fossil fuels to electric heating and cooling, according to the US Department of Energy.

Geothermal Goes Live In Framingham

This week, Eversource, the city gas utility that supplies Framingham, Massachusetts, will begin operating a first in the nation underground thermal energy network. The $14 million project includes a one-mile loop of pipes that will connect to houses, apartments, commercial buildings, a community college campus, and a fire station. Those pipes will circulate a water and glycol solution through 88 boreholes that extend hundreds of feet into the Earth, where the ambient temperature is a constant 55° F year round, and distributing it to the buildings connected to the loop.

“The pipe is in the ground, the boreholes have been drilled. We’re ready to turn the pumps on and get going,” Eric Bosworth, the clean technologies manager for  Eversource, told Canary Media. “We as a utility are well positioned to do this project — the pipes are in the warehouse, the skills are in the workforce,” Bosworth said. ​“Now we’re really interested in what the economics are” — and how they could allow the utility to scale thermal energy networks beyond a single neighborhood.

Ground Source Heat Pumps Are The Future

The argument that utilities are uniquely suited to deliver groundwater to homes and businesses is makes perfect sense. They have been installing pipes underground to deliver methane for a century. Who would be better qualified to do this than the local gas company? Doing so takes advantage of the existing skills of its current workforce and utilizes much of the same equipment used today to build and maintain the existing network of pipes.

Those utility companies are facing a ticking time bomb. Aging pipes are an explosion hazard. On September 13, 2018, excessive pressure in natural gas lines owned by Columbia Gas of Massachusetts caused a series of explosions and fires to occur in as many as 40 homes. There were more than 80 individual fires in the towns of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, Massachusetts. One person was killed and 30,000 were forced to evacuate their homes,

Massachusetts gas utilities are facing tens of billions of dollars in costs to maintain aging gas pipelines, all to keep delivering a fossil fuel that’s incompatible with the state’s climate goals. Advocates of thermal networks say it makes far more sense to channel that money into infrastructure that fits into a carbon-free future — a move that will help the planet and avoid saddling customers with the costs of stranded gas assets.

Billions & Billions At Stake

In a report released last month, Cambridge, Massachusetts-based nonprofit Home Energy Efficiency Team tallied up $347 billion in U.S. utility investments into gas distribution pipelines that have already been ​locked in” — meaning gas utility customers will have to pay them off over the next 50 years. If current plans by gas utilities continue unchecked, another $698 billion in future capital costs could be piled onto customers, the report found.

That makes it seem like a no-brainer to transition to delivering water from geothermal wells, but there is a problem. Laws in most states require utilities to supply service to anyone who wants it within their service area. This costly infrastructure needs to be phased out over the coming years in order to combat climate change. Burning fossil fuels in buildings accounts for about 10% of total U.S. carbon emissions and the majority of those emissions are from gas furnaces and water heaters. Methane, the leak-prone prime ingredient in fossil gas, is itself a powerful greenhouse gas and a safety and health risk for humans.

Utilities can’t just shut down their gas networks overnight. But neither can they continue with business as usual, investing more and more into a pipeline network that must be used less and less, driving up costs for gas customers. Those who can afford to do so will abandon gas for electric heating and appliances to avoid those rising costs, leaving fewer — and poorer — customers to shoulder increasingly high rates just to keep their homes warm.

To interrupt this negative feedback loop, policymakers and regulators must ​“give the gas companies a way to transition,” said Ania Camargo Cortés, thermal networks senior manager with the nonprofit group Building Decarbonization Coalition. Her organization has tracked municipal, corporate, and college campus systems in North America that have proved their long term energy efficiency and carbon cutting value. ​“How do we decommission all this gas pipe in a safe way and in a phased, managed way — one that takes whole neighborhoods at a time, so that it doesn’t become an equity issue?” she asks.

“College campuses and other communities can build thermal energy networks — but not gas utilities,” Camargo Cortés said. For that to change, utilities and state regulators have to set up pilot projects like the Framingham thermal energy network loop to vet the engineering and economics, she said. The Building Decarbonization Coalition is one of a number of groups that have been working to create the legal and regulatory structures to make these pilots — and eventually larger scale change — possible.The conflict between existing tech and new tech is similar to what manufacturers of conventional vehicles are experiencing as they try to transition to electric cars and trucks while still building gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles.

Sidestepping The Geothermal Issue In Framingham

The Eversource pilot project in Framingham is avoiding that thorny issue. “We’re not touching any of the existing infrastructure,” Bosworth said. Buildings in the pilot are still receiving fossil gas for water heating, cooking, and other uses. But for thermal energy networks to serve the transformational role that groups like HEET and the Building Decarbonization Council envision for them, this problem will need to be confronted. Customers at large will have to agree to ditch fossil gas entirely.

That’s where ​“removing the ​”obligation to serve” becomes really important,” Camargo Cortés said, referring to the regulations in every state that require gas utilities to provide gas to any customer in their service territory. ​“For a gas utility to take one street’s pipes offline requires everyone to agree.” Getting universal agreement is a daunting task that will require skill and patience. Eversource expects participating customers to see their monthly energy bills fall by about 20% and their carbon emission drop by about 60% as they move from gas to ground source heat pumps. But ​“that’s a ballpark average,” Bosworth said. The pilot will help to quantify things more accurately.

It’s important to keep an eye on the portion of costs that could fall as these networks are expanded, Bosworth said. For instance, out of the Framingham project’s $14 million total budget, about $5.7 million went to building the central pump house and control system that keeps the liquid flowing into and out of the boreholes and throughout the pipe network — assets that could support the network’s expansion to adjacent neighborhoods.

Last year, Eversource and HEET won a $715,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to study the feasibility of doing just that kind of expansion, Camargo Cortés said. While that study is still underway, ​“they’re seeing a lot of cost savings from this second loop compared to this first loop,” she said.

Geothermal, Heat Pumps, & The Electrical Grid

In the longer term, thermal energy networks could significantly reduce the cost of expanding the electricity grid to meet the state’s decarbonization mandates, Bosworth said. That’s because ground-source heat pumps use about half the electricity that air source heat pumps do during the coldest times of the winter, and winter peak electricity demands are the key driver of grid costs for utilities in cold climates. “If you run the numbers with air source heat pumps, there’s a lot more electric grid buildout that needs to take place, compared to ground source heat pumps,” he said.

Other states are also exploring the geothermal groundwater distribution model, which is similar to district heating systems used by many European cities. Pilot projects are happening not only in Massachusetts but also in New York. Legislation allowing thermal networks to move forward has passed or been proposed in Colorado, Maryland, Minnesota, Vermont, and Washington state.

The Takeaway

This idea makes so much sense, it’s hard to imagine anyone would not want to participate. Why would you not want to save 20% or more on your heating bills for years and years into the future? But of course some will object because you can’t please all the people all the time. It will take years to make the changeover, years during which gas companies will have to continue pouring money into repairing aging infrastructure.

There are many hurdles to get over before this technology becomes widely accepted, but in the end, lower heating and cooling bills will win over even the most recalcitrant home and business owners. There is only upside here. The worst thing that could happen with this system is a flooded basement,. The worst thing that could happen with city gas is finding your roof three blocks away and all your windows blown out. It should be a fairly simple decision to make.


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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