A Miller Environmental Group worker feeds a geothermal loop into the ground at a job site. MEG Manager of Geothermal Drilling David E. Reardon says Hurricane Sandy’s devastation spurred inquiries to the company about geothermal installations. Source: Miller Environmental Group

Many drillers know geothermal for its efficiency. Some know its reputation for up-front costs. Few might think about its resiliency in the face of a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy.

Miller Environmental Group Inc. (MEG) knows that resiliency first hand. MEG is based in Calverton, N.Y., a small community at the end of Interstate 495 on Long Island. When you look at a map, Long Island sticks out like a thumb into the Atlantic-a thumb that was lashed with 100-mph winds and doused with several inches of rain when the storm struck in late October. Media reports at the time said thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed.

Of those homes and businesses that survived, many were left without energy to heat or cool their homes. Fuel oil tanks were unearthed and damaged. Cooling towers were knocked off line. MEG says geothermal installations weathered the storm and returned to work as soon as the electricity came back.

“A typical example is where folks have lost their heating system as a result of flood waters,” said David E. Reardon, MEG’s manager of geothermal drilling. “In addition to that, they’ve lost an oil tank.” He said it wasn’t uncommon for tanks to float off with floodwaters brought by the storm.

He said they’ve heard from several new customers inquiring about geothermal-both in residential and commercial.

Floodwaters swamped many parts of Long Island. Source: Miller Environmental Group.

Miller was established in 1971 to serve utility, transportation and other clients throughout the Northeast region of the United States. Current clients include petroleum companies, utilities, Fortune 500 companies and others. The company, Reardon says, has grown into a diverse environmental firm with offices in Richmond, Va.; Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; upstate New York and elsewhere.

Part of that work involves remediation-returning spoiled sites to their natural state. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, that was a tall order. For affected homeowners, it could mean a crawlspace or yard covered in heating oil. It’s a matter of vacuuming and vacuuming until no visible traces of oil remain, says Reardon, and following that with the removal of impacted soil.

All of this, Reardon says, has clients thinking about geothermal as a solution. Even if up-front costs can seem high, he says customers need to think about other factors. “When you look at the replacement cost of a decent heat oil system versus geothermal, they can be very similar,” he said. “And it’s not only a furnace, but an air conditioning condenser that’s been outside (weathering the storm).”

“The nice thing about geothermal equipment is that it doesn’t have to remain outside.”

Incentives, Savings For Customers

Plus, the federal government and many states have incentives ranging from grants to loan guarantees to tax credits. According to the U.S. Department of Energy-Michigan, home of the National Driller editorial office-makes loans available for both residential and commercial projects. Other states, like Colorado, offer both property and sales tax incentives.

Homes and businesses can also see significant savings on energy costs over, for example, natural gas, once a geothermal loop is up and running.

An MEG worker feeds a loop into the ground. About 2 percent of the HVAC market in the United States is geothermal. Source: Miller Environmental Group.

“A homeowner can save anywhere from 40 to 70 percent from their conventional system,” Reardon said. Those savings, he says, are based on the cost of energy and the average price for fuel oil. An average homeowner in his area, he says, spends $4,000 to $5,000 a year on heating oil. That means savings per year can easily add up to thousands of dollars.

One last perk, Reardon says: “No more combustion.” That means zero potential for gas leaks in the home.

“Whether it’s a home being impacted by a storm or for new construction, when you evaluate the cost of geothermal-whether it’s a small residential home or a large commercial project-it’s very feasible,” Reardon said.

About 2M Heat Pumps in U.S.

The Geothermal National & International Initiative (Geo-nii) says the U.S. installed base of heating and air-conditioning units using geothermal sits at a little over 2 percent, or about 2 million heat pumps. The group is a collaborative effort of the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association, the National Association of State Energy Officials and the Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium. It aims to promote wider use of geothermal in residential, commercial and public applications.

“It’s been accepted more now,” said John P. DiEnna Jr., the group’s executive director.

“The growth rate is what it is just because of people recognizing the value. That’s really not a big change, frankly.” Geo-nii aims for a goal of 30 percent penetration in the HVAC market.

DiEnna’s group is working with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to help make sure the geothermal industry has a voice at the table in discussions of recovery from Hurricane Sandy. He says geothermal has a good case to make compared to other heating and cooling technologies.

Miller Environmental Group, established in 1971, serves a range of clients from Richmond, Va., to upstate New York. Source: Miller Environmental Group.

“The resiliency of these systems is that the ones that have geothermal in there, let’s say you have a house with an outdoor conventional unit, like an AC unit, all those things are gone,” in a fierce storm like Sandy.

“With a loop system, those things are underground,” he said. Those loops are made of high-density polyethylene pipe, a material that he says even stands up well in earthquake-prone areas like Los Angeles.

Growth Potential for Drillers

That 2 percent figure DiEnna cites means that geothermal has plenty of potential for water well drillers. “If you’re a water well driller, you do a well here, a well there,” DiEnna said. But he says big geothermal jobs can be a boon for drillers, with some jobs lasting for months. “If you can do a job for 7 months and not have to move a rig, doesn’t that make sense?”

“The whole deal here is, do you want to move forward? You can only drill so many wells in a community,” he said. About 65 percent of geothermal heat pumps going in are retrofits, DiEnna says. That’s a lot of potential customers in areas where the water-well infrastructure may be mature and not yielding as much business as it once did.

“This is a driller’s technology. If we were at the 30 percent,” DiEnna said, “we’d have to create or retain 5 million jobs. … Most of those jobs are mechanical jobs, like drillers. The thing that drives this industry is the need for drillers.”

Reardon agrees. “I think most drillers are already thinking about it, if not doing it,” he said. For those considering geothermal, Reardon suggests they “do right by the customer and design a system right.”

“Proper loop and well design makes for a better system,” he says.  ND