Wyandotte reaches underground to provide green utility service

Sunday Times Newspapers

WYANDOTTE – In a move that requires setting aside the tongue-in-cheek jokes about politicians being in hot water, the City Council recently approved creation of geothermal utility service.

Municipal Services now will offer residents and businesses geothermal energy hookups, in addition to the electricity, steam, water, cable television and high-speed Internet the department already provides.

The city now will provide underground heat-exchange wells – typically a vertical well on the property easement — to which a customer may connect a heat pump, which takes stable heat from inside the earth using a closed-loop pipe system to provide a building with heating, cooling — and often, hot water. (See related story on this page) Heat pumps take the place of a traditional heating, ventilating and air-conditioning system.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, geothermal systems are the most environmentally friendly way to heat and cool homes; they also emit no greenhouse gases. The system runs on electricity, just like a gas furnace does.

Experts say a geothermal heat pump is a good choice when building a new house, since the cost can be rolled into the cost of the mortgage, and that it also is a good choice during a rehabilitation or when a new furnace or air conditioner is needed.

Melanie McCoy, Municipal Services general manager, compared supplying geothermal heat exchange wells to supplying the electrical lines and water supply pipes that connect to a customer’s property. She said officials first looked at geothermal energy as a way to possibly reduce utility costs within city-owned buildings.

A typical homeowner could save $600 to $700 a year on their utility bill using geothermal heating and cooling, McCoy said, adding that monthly utility bills would be in the $50 to $60 range.

In addition to approving creation of the geothermal service, the council also approved a rate schedule for residential and small commercial customers, as well as maintenance fees.

Residential customers will be charged a $4.50 monthly service charge, and $26.73 monthly energy charge monthly energy charge per 12,000 British thermal units, or tons. Small commercial customers will see a $15.30 monthly charge for each connection, plus a $29.93 monthly energy charge per 12,000 Btu.

The maintenance rate for seasonal commercial or industrial service that remains connected throughout the year will consist of a monthly service charge of $4.50 and a monthly energy charge of $11.75 per 12,000 Btu when the customer supplies the bore field requirements adequate to their load requirements. Municipal Services will provide for its maintenance up to the supply and return valves.

Apartment buildings may use the residential rate only if they are separately metered. Boarding houses, hotels and dormitories are excluded from residential rates.

Pricey now, but efficient later
Dave Congdon, a consultant with Eco1Energy Consulting working with Hardin Geotechnology LLC, the advanced energy group partnering with the city on the project, said geothermal heat pump operation “is just extremely efficient.”

But gaining that efficiency isn’t cheap, at least at first. When an existing HVAC system must be replaced, a geothermal system, without the cost of the well, is $12,000 to $13,000. Mitigating that cost, however, is a 30 percent federal tax credit for installing a heat pump.

Officials will use a federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program grant to retrofit 19 houses the city is rehabilitating with geothermal heat pumps. Twenty-five new houses now being built also will have geothermal heat pumps, bringing the total to 44 in which the utility’s use is planned.

“It’s a win-win,” City Engineer Mark Kowalewski said at the June 7 council meeting where the program was approved. “It’s what we want to do .It lets us supply low utility rates to the 25 percent of the (rehabbed) homes we’re (required to) sell to low-income people. Not only are their utility payments, but their mortgage cost are what they can afford.”

James French, assistant general manager for Municipal Services, said the Labadie Park condominiums also will use geothermal heat pumps. The Templin Center, medical and office space planned for the southwest corner of Ford Avenue and Biddle, may be the first commercial application in the city to use the technology.

City officials will decide the most efficient places to put the wells, and with Hardin they will select initial well sites and connect wells to the first customer heat pumps. French said houses must have good insulation and other energy-saving practices in effect in order to use it.

Municipal Services will bid out competitively each well system. After installation, customers can connect to it through a contract arrangement with the department, which will maintain the system.

A shut-off valve will be installed at the curb, French said, and homeowners will be responsible for the heat pump and for connecting it to the well field.

French says a well system should last 100 years. Drilling ordinances would impact well installation, similar to regulations governing above-ground cell tower antennae.

McCoy said private individuals wanting to install a geothermal well must take into consideration how it would impact neighboring property, because wells can’t be too close together.