Just beneath the surface of the earth lies one of the pieces to a puzzle that has fascinated humans since prehistoric times – renewable energy. Along with solar and wind, geothermal energy has inched its way to the top of the wish lists of both dedicated environmentalists and profit-seeking entrepreneurs. Why? It is virtually inexhaustible. It is constant, 24/7, in all weather (unlike solar and wind). And, finally, when current harnessing technology is employed, it is extremely inexpensive.
These factors have resulted in more and more homeowners, especially those who live in the Mountain and Western U.S. regions, where geothermal pools are plentiful, asking their builders to include plans for geothermal power in their new home construction.
Plus, innovations such as enhanced geothermal systems are making extraction of this power more efficient. An article on this technology notes that "this could potentially open up thousands of megawatts of energy potential from new reservoirs. And that could someday take the country's current 3,000 megawatts of geothermal energy production to almost 500,000. To put that into perspective, the entire electric power generating capacity in the United States is about a million megawatts."
A Quick Primer on Geothermal Energy
The U.S. Energy Information Administration notes that in order to generate electricity from geothermal resources, "a well is usually drilled directly into an underground geothermal reservoir of water that can be as hot as 700 degrees Fahrenheit (371 Celsius). The trapped steam is brought to the surface to turn a turbine that produces electricity. The Geothermal Energy Association (GEA) points out that water is also found on the surface as hot springs or geysers.
"Ground source heat pumps move fluids through continuous pipeline loops that are buried underground at depths where the temperature does not change much," according to GEA. "Heat picked up by the circulating fluid is delivered to a home or commercial building through a traditional duct system. During the summer, the pipeline loop pulls heat out of a building and returns cooler fluid to cool the building."
Coloradans Have Warmed Up to This Energy Source
Mike Schroetlin, owner of Denver-based Schroetlin Custom Homes, has worked with clients who want geothermal-powered homes, and he feels this is based on both environmental and practical considerations.
"Coloradoans are fairly progressive people," he said. "They like products that can save them money while, at the same time, being environmentally friendly. Geothermal energy meets both of those objectives and geothermal pools are plentiful throughout this region.
"Colorado’s climate also requires extensive heating in the winter and cooling in the summer. This increases the demand and the expense for utilities from traditional energy generating plants. While it depends on the home size, layout, fuel sources and utility prices in that area, in our experience the costs for a geothermal system in a mid-level custom home were $15-25 thousand more than a high efficient, 'forced air system'. About half or more of these additional costs are offset by tax incentives or rebates, making the net additional costs about $10-15 thousand more.
"Because of the lower utility costs per month, the time to break even on the initial investment was around 8-10 years. From that point on, the monthly savings are simply money in the homeowner’s pocket."
"In many ways, the advantages of using geothermal energy mirror those of brick construction," added Michael Earley of Acme Brick. "Brick is the original environmentally friendly construction material. It comes from the earth and is completely natural.
"As with geothermal energy, there is a little more initial investment required to build with brick. However, in a very short time, the savings on maintenance, insurance and the increase in resale value more than make up for this initial investment. Just like geothermal energy, brick is a good business decision."
There are Few Challenges to Building a Geothermal Home
As a custom home builder whose projects start at $800,000 and can exceed millions of dollars, Schroetlin is adept at managing the challenges of building these luxury homes. Because his company has built geothermal-powered homes, he has well-earned insights about challenges of this renewal energy source.
"Actually, there are very few challenges with this compared to traditional natural gas or propane, forced air HVAC systems," he said. "One requirement is an area near the house where vertical piping can be installed. These are usually drilled 75-300 feet deep.
"Another option is horizontal piping, which takes up more land but is installed at a shallower depth below the surface. I use a qualified geothermal HVAC contractor to professionally manage this for the homeowner. It really isn’t much more complicated as far as timeframe and scheduling than a traditional HVAC system."
Brick and Geothermal = Powerful Resale Value
The combination of brick construction and geothermal power translates to an increase in value of the home. This comes from savings on utilities and the increase in resale value.
"Most of our clients plan on staying in their custom homes for life, and many pass these properties along to their children," Schroetlin said. "However, there are times when a family needs to move due to job changes and the like, and it is at this time when monthly expenses and resale value become important.
"The exterior materials will affect the efficiency of a geothermal home, just like any other home. Brick has its benefits, such as sound infiltration and thermal mass advantages.
"As for resale value, I believe brick construction and renewable energy, such as geothermal, enhances this. A potential buyer comparing a brick home with geothermal power will realize that the monthly utility expenses will be a fraction of the non-geothermal home they are comparing it to. It is difficult to calculate dollar amount this translates to for purchase price – neighborhood, interest rates, and other factors have an impact on this. However, we have industry research that suggests that the resale value of a brick home increases more than $3,600 each year it is owned."