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Free heat from a geothermal heat pump warms my kitchen as I write this commentary. For every dollar of electrical energy that goes into the heat pump, I get 3.6 dollars of electrical heat. That’s 2.6 dollars of free heat. And by purchasing clean green power from hydroelectric dams and wind power, it’s possible to heat one’s home without burning oil and without generating global warming gases.
The idea of installing a geothermal heat pump began in 2004 when I read about how the polar ice caps are melting at a record pace and how atmospheric carbon dioxide was at record levels and increasing dramatically. The possibility of peak oil production occurring in this decade accompanied by increasing demand for oil in China has made oil prices skyrocket.
I watched as President Bush set up a string of permanent military bases in the oil producing regions of Iraq. I watched as our own Maine National Reserve troops were sent to oil-rich Iraq with the false goals of fighting terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. I watched as oil companies made obscene profits while people suffered. Something had to be done. The freedom we should be fighting for today is freedom from Middle East oil.
So, how does one economically heat one’s home without oil and without pollution? Natural gas is a clean-burning fuel but it still increases carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. Solar is good, but there just isn’t much sunlight available in January in Maine when we need the most heat. Geothermal heating coupled with green power produced from hydroelectric, wind and solar power met the requirements.
Green power does cost a little more than the standard offer. But even though electricity is expensive in the Bangor area, my heating costs will be less than heating from oil. Some drawbacks are the high installation cost and that geothermal heating is not well-established in Maine. To extract heat from the ground, one must bury a large amount of pipe in the ground. Still geothermal heating is a well-established technology. Ninety-five percent of new homes in Sweden have installed geothermal heating. Five hundred thousand units have been installed in Canada and the United States.
To minimize the installation cost, I decided on a smaller hybrid system that I installed myself for about $3,000. I estimated that this system could produce about 75 percent of my yearly heating needs since maximum heat loads are only required on the coldest days. My current oil furnace would provide the extra heat needed to warm the house on those days. As an added benefit the system would provide low-cost air conditioning in the summer while providing domestic hot water and heat for my swimming pool.
So, eight weekends later, twice as long as planned and with a series of intense learning situations otherwise known as correcting my own mistakes, I had a working geothermal heat pump. On Jan. 1, warm air came from the register.
Of course I am still on a learning curve but the success I’ve had with this system so far makes me wonder why most new houses aren’t built with a geothermal heat pump for heating and cooling.
David LaBrecque is a research associate in the Chemistry Department at the University of Maine.