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Digging The Climate

June 4, 1999

Digging the Climate

By ERIC BLOM , Staff Writer

© 1999 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.


SCARBOROUGH - Eric Cianchette likes to tell people that water fuels the heating and air conditioning system at his Black Point Inn. No oil, propane, natural gas or electric heaters. Just water.

The former summer-only resort has begun installing a geothermal system that will use groundwater to heat and cool the air. The project is believed to be the largest such installation in the Northeast.

"I think this is the future," said Cianchette, who bought the resort last year and plans to keep it open for at least part of the 1999-2000 winter season for the first time. "It's environmentally better. It's more energy efficient."

Geothermal heating also will be more aesthetically pleasing at the resort than conventional air conditioning and heating systems would have been. No need to put holes in the walls of the 121-year-old inn, Cianchette said. And with no boiler to belch fumes, there is no need to build a chimney either.

The inn is not the first building in Maine to go geothermal. During the last several years, a smattering of homes, office buildings, stores and schools have chosen geothermal systems rather than conventional heating.

Still, the Black Point project dwarfs the others in scale. It is three times the size of any other project that Carl Orio, a major regional distributor of geothermal systems, has seen in New England. Orio is president of Water & Energy Systems Corp. in Atkinson, N.H.

The Black Point project involves 130,000 square feet of heating and cooling space, and will kick out 110 times as much heat as a typical home-heating system. To do that, the project will use 120 heat pumps and at least eight wells, each drilled 1,500 feet through the granite ledge of Prout's Neck to fresh-water aquifers below.

Already, with 32,000 square feet of geothermal heating and cooling in place, the resort has installed more than a mile of pipe, said Paul Bock, a foreman on the project for Maine Air Conditioning in Portland, which is doing the work at Black Point. The company has completed several residential and commercial geothermal projects in southern Maine during the last six years.

All of those geothermal systems rely on two simple facts for their effectiveness at turning water into heat. Groundwater remains at a relatively stable temperature throughout the year, thanks to the insulating blanket of soil and rock around it. And technology makes it possible to pull heat out of that water, or add warmth into it, to heat and cool buildings. "It's really a natural solar heating system," said Douglas Martin, president of Maine Air Conditioning.

The hot core of the earth also adds heat to any groundwater that resides more than 500 feet beneath the surface.

"The deeper you go, the warmer the water," said Douglas Martin, president of Maine Air Conditioning. At 1,500 feet in Maine, water remains in the mid-50 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.

At the Prout's Neck resort, groundwater is pumped from the wells to the buildings that will be heated and cooled. The water is filtered and then sent to each room at the inn.

There, individual heat pumps perform the magic of turning tepid water into comfortably warm air. Here's how it works:

During cold months, heat pumps use a refrigerant to pick up warmth from water, similar to the way home refrigerators pull heat from the air. The heat is then blown out into the room by electric fans, just as a refrigerator blows out warm air.

"A heat pump just moves heat," said Conn Abnee, executive director of the Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium, a national advocacy group. "It doesn't generate heat."

During the summer, refrigerants in the heat pumps pick up warmth from the air and put it into the water, which travels through the system and back down the well to the aquifer.

All of this happens automatically, depending on the air temperature and the unit's temperature setting.

"That heat pump really never knows what the temperature is outdoors," Abnee said. "It thinks the temperature year-round is 50 degrees."

The heat pumps and well pumps need electricity to run, but are much more fuel efficient than other forms of heating and cooling because they have the temperature boost from the tepid water. It's not an oil or electric heat system, trying to raise sub-freezing winter air to a comfortable temperature from scratch.

Maine Air Conditioning estimates that its previous geothermal projects average between 65 cents and $1.07 per square foot in energy costs, which includes heat, lights, ventilation and so forth. That's half the likely cost for a non-geothermal project, Martin said. Geothermal heating itself is not new. People have been using warm water from the earth as a heat source, in geologically select regions, for 10,000 years. And heat pumps that extract warmth from even tepid water have been available for decades.

Today, there are about 400,000 geothermal systems being used nationwide, Abnee said. Unit sales are growing at a 23 percent annual rate to an estimated 68,000 in 1998.

Still, the technique is rare, when viewed in the context of the overall market for heating and cooling systems. It represents less than 1 percent of all installed systems nationwide, Abnee said.

In Maine, geothermal is at least that rare. Oil dominates the heating market, followed by gas and propane. Alternative energy systems of all types represent only a tiny splinter of the total market, state officials said.

One major problem for geothermal is that most people have never heard about the technology, except perhaps in the vaguest of terms.

"It amounts to awareness," Abnee said. "Not too many people are aware of the benefits."

Also, heat pumps have a bad name among some Mainers because air-to-air heat pumps tried here in the 1970s and 1980s don't work well in Maine.

Finally, geothermal systems can cost anywhere from 30 to 50 percent more than conventional heating and air conditioning systems to install. Most of the additional cost comes from the need to drill wells and install pipes.

"The cost of our equipment is virtually the same," said Jim Damiani, president of ClimateMaster, which supplied the heat pumps being used at Black Point. "The difference in cost is installation."

Some companies and homeowners just cannot come up with the extra money to install geothermal systems.

"The small business generally can't afford the up-front cost," said Karl Heister, an energy specialist for the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.

People constructing buildings for resale are seldom interested in geothermal because the initial cost is too high.

"Does it make business sense? No. The capital costs are too high," Cianchette said.

The inn has spent between $300,000 and $400,000 on the system so far and expects to shell out maybe $1.2 million before the project is complete.

Still, Cianchette hopes to recoup the investment in reduced heating costs. "You make it back if you live long enough," he said.

A properly installed geothermal system costs less to run than systems heated by oil, gas or electricity. The U.S. Department of Energy has called geothermal the most fuel-efficient heating and cooling system available.

The length of time required to pay for the additional installation expense depends on a variety of factors, such as how the system is used. Martin estimates that Black Point will recoup its costs in three years, after it ties all aspects of the resort - from the pool to the hoods on kitchen stoves - into the system.

After the payback has been achieved, Black Point can pocket the energy cost savings, along with the savings from lower maintenance costs.

But the biggest benefit to society is that it is far more environmentally friendly, said John Logan, who works as residential marketing director for Maine at Water and Energy Systems Corp. It cuts down enormously on the production of pollutants.




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