Today our geothermal project officially got underway. Goodwin Well and Water came and started drilling our existing well to a much deeper level. Not having seen the process before, it’s fun to see how something as common as a well gets drilled. 44% of Maine residents get their water by private well, the largest percentage in the country.
80% of Mainers use fuel oil to heat their homes. That has been our source of heat too, meaning we are prone to wild fluctuations based on the price of oil. Since I consider it possible that oil could rise significantly in the future, part of the rationale for this is to protect ourselves from that expense. Geothermal runs on electricity, but uses far less energy. Moreover, natural gas is the source to power electric plants, which is cheaper and more plentiful. So far only about 1% of Mainers use geothermal in private residences, and retrofitting homes to move to geothermal can be tricky. Ours has a baseboard heating system that geothermal will not accommodate, so a big expense is setting up duct work for a forced air system.
If all goes according to plan we’ll have geothermal AC by the end of next week. We don’t have AC, and most of the summer don’t need it, but it is nice to have. So back from Italy and we jump into yet another project!
Back in late 2007 I wrote an e-mail to the staff list asking if anyone knew about geothermal options. It led to a number of exchanges and as oil surged in price in 2008, Tom Eastler, our internationally known fossil fuel geologist (who is convinced oil may get very expensive in the future) even arranged for a public talk about alternative home heating methods. The most interesting one was from a professor in Orono talking about having heat exchange pumps positioned in various places around the house — you could control them individually and it would be more efficient. Alas, that’s a tough kind of retrofit on an existing house and no one actually does that yet.
Solar works well for heating water, and passive solar systems can be efficient. Wind power can generate electricity, and the main alternative to oil here is wood. Maine is a forest and wood is plentiful — and at current prices the cost is the oil equivalent of about $1.70 a gallon. That price probably won’t change unless demand changes — and if oil remains high in cost, wood pellet stoves and ordinary wood stove usage will rise. My wife grew up having to tend a wood stove, I would rather not have to deal with buying, storing and hauling wood and besides — the tech lover in me thinks geothermal is cool! (Speaking of cool, as noted, it also gives AC!)
We mulled over the options and then the price of oil fell. The issue lost its salience, but I suspected that unless we’re in a deep permanent world recession, not only will prices rise again, but the best time to arrange this is when the oil prices are low and there isn’t a high demand for conversion. We worked it out financially (recognizing that we can cut 30% off the top with federal tax credits), and early last winter — before oil prices starting to really rise — we got our estimates. Goodwin’s well and water sent over detailed information about the well system, and Jeff Gagnon Heating, recognized as one of the top geothermal installers in Maine, explained the way the system would work and put together his estimate. It was recommended we wait until after winter to do the well work (it’s easier in so many ways!) and we’d already pre-paid oil so we tentatively agreed. The fact it would significantly reduce our carbon footprint was also an important issue for me.
The pay off time was looking to be more like 10 to 15 years, which is quite awhile. Then oil prices started rising, and the possibility of further hikes due to turmoil in the Mideast solidified our decision. We altered our tax withholdings because of the expected credit, arranged financing, and had both the well and heating people over to examine our property and step by step determine how it would be done. I didn’t get alternate bids because we decided with a new and relatively rare technology we wanted people with a very good reputation. So I did some research on who was the best for our region and went with that.
Given the tax credits, I think geothermal is a no-brainer for new construction. The cost isn’t that much more than setting up heating oil (pay back time is about three or four years), and the cost can be built into the mortgage.
So now the project begins! It may not be as interesting as my Italy blogs (and I won’t blog about it every day for two weeks, that would be geo-overkill), but it is a look at heating in the future — and regardless of global warming, I suspect home heating will be a major issue in Maine for quite some time!