Geothermal drilling is not new. In fact, some drillers have been involved in geothermal heat pump (GHP) work for decades. Many other drillers have experienced sporadic or occasional work – from mostly top-end design projects.
Continuing uncertainty in a volatile energy market has created concern over the cost of both residential and commercial heating and cooling. Those unpredictable costs have made many take a serious look at the proven return on investment offered by GHPs. Support from the stimulus-related funding of the Obama administration has spurred that interest in spite of the higher initial cost of the technology.
Today, drillers in the geothermal realm are starting to see a real uptick in their scheduling of jobs as the marketing information pertaining to federal tax credits and other energy-related initiatives reaches interested consumers. Around the country, many larger utilities are offering considerable rebates, installation bonuses and lower-interest loans, and some even will pay for the entire ground loop system.
Many states, municipalities and heat pump manufacturers are sweetening the deal for buyers by adding additional incentives. Economically, there probably has never been a better time than now to consider investing in GHP systems. Homeowners and builders are beginning to see the long-term value of incorporating geothermal heat and air and other easily coupled products for humidity control and boosts to hot water systems.
Dale Leuck, owner of Leuck’s Drilling Co. in Papillion, Neb., runs an exclusive geothermal drilling and full-service installation outfit. Leuck, who was operating two mud-rotary drill rigs a year ago, has expanded to running four rigs. He now uses one Simco 2800, one SIMCO 5000 and two SEMCO 7000 units.
Leuck’s vice president of sales and operations, Dean Epperson, handles bidding and drilling schedules. He says the company usually is booked out for the year by the end of March. He also says there has been more interest in residential work in their area. Leuck’s Drilling is licensed to drill in Nebraska, Iowa and Colorado.
Both Epperson and Leuck say that bidding on commercial projects is cutthroat right now. Leuck Drilling has completed more than 500 commercial and residential geothermal projects.
Recent projects have included schools in the Lincoln, Neb., and Des Moines, Iowa, areas. “Lincoln has been converting all of their schools over to geothermal,” Epperson explains.
Epperson says they are competing with drillers who are coming in from western states where water moratorium issues have dried up water drilling work for many outfits. Some of those drillers now are looking at converting to geothermal in order to benefit from the stimulus dollars available.
The rapid growth in the industry brings concerns for Leuck, who says the technology’s increased popularity makes it even more important for anyone choosing geothermal to be selective about who does their installation.
“We don’t want incompetent people to give it a bad name,” Leuck explains. “Make sure it is done correctly, or don’t do it at all.” Leuck has GHP experience and training, and a record for his support of innovative clean energy technologies. “It’s kind of the wave of the future for people who are more concerned about fossil fuels compared to something that is renewable,” Leuck notes.
Another experienced geothermal driller, Jimmy Grantham also is staying busy. J. Grantham Drilling Co., out of Poteau, Okla., has done geothermal work for 18 years. Before that, Grantham worked in oil field exploration drilling with his father, H. V. Grantham. He never has worked at anything else, he says, even though he studied marine and wildlife biology in college.
Grantham says there always has been a lot of competition in his area of work. “If one guy sees another guy doing it, he thinks he can do it,” he notes. He hasn’t seen new startup drilling outfits near him.
“I was in seismographic with my dad for years and years,” Grantham relates. He says he started doing geothermal work on the side. “Then the geo work got bigger than oil work, so I don’t even do any oil field work anymore.” Grantham, who drills all over the country, holds that his previous experience in exploration drilling still is helpful to him. “One thing about seismographic drilling – you drill all over the place. In this business, you don’t know where your next job is going to be,” he says. “I know the formations, and that helps out a lot – especially in bidding the jobs.”
Grantham runs three rigs – two are Midway 13M models, and one is a Gardner Denver HD1000. All of the units are table drives. “They are small, versatile and quick,” Grantham says. “They are excellent for this work. They are lighter, and they are mounted on diesel trucks. My rigs weigh about 50,000 pounds where others can weigh 75,000 pounds or more.”
Recent work for Grantham has included drilling for two colleges in Santa Rosa, Calif.; a public library in the Otter Creek addition of Little Rock, Ark.; and a school in Perkins, Okla. He will start work on another library at Arkansas State University in Mountain Home, Ark., soon. He also is doing work for military installations.
“We are doing a test hole on the Pine Bluff Army Arsenal in Arkansas,” Grantham says. “It is a military plant kind of like the one in McAlester, Okla.” Grantham says he also is scheduled to work at Camp Robinson near Conway, Ark. “We are doing a lot of test holes for the government on Army bases.”
Grantham claims he has a step up over anyone just starting in the business. “I contribute that to getting out of the seismic business a long time ago and going to geothermal. It paid off for me.” Business has increased for Grantham in both commercial and residential areas. “I have a rig that does nothing but homes, and right now it is a 30 percent rebate on homes,” he explains. “It is all pretty much tied in to the government with Obama right now. Everything is tied into green. That is what is really driving the geothermal business right now, even though it is a slow time for others.”
Grantham expects business to continue to improve for him. “We are in this green loop, and there has been a lot of money appropriated for it.”
Both Grantham and Leuck agree that training, certification and experience are vital requirements in their work. Staying connected to trade industry associations also has been beneficial, both say. They are required to maintain the needed licenses to work in the states where they both do drilling projects. While Leuck voices concern that project managers need to hold drillers and other geothermal installers accountable for certifications and licensing, both see a future where it will be critical to have the right credentials to continue working.
The growth outlook for geothermal is improving as more high profile projects are getting wider media coverage, and an increase in both commercial and residential GHP installations is expected.