In our dreams

Geothermal heating is ideal. Paying for a system? Not so much.

SN&R buys a building, wants to make it green and pays Sena: Eco-Warrior Princess to write a weekly column about it.

Whether it’s The Onion critically examining how we can make the war in Iraq more eco-friendly (drive biodegradable tanks, shock detainees with wind power) or a former vice president engaging in an adult-to-adult conversation with citizens about climate change (hold up, you lost me there), the American public is really pushing the sustainability agenda.

I, for one, appreciate the support, especially when it comes to SN&R’s renovation of a building on Del Paso Boulevard, because we’ll take all the help you’re willing to give us. And by “give,” I literally mean for free. We’re operating on a budget here. Hey, what do you expect from a project nicknamed “green building for tightwads?”

Studies show, oh excuse me, prove that green building doesn’t have to be expensive. But in our experience, eco-friendly options mean higher-quality and higher-quality means costly. We want to encourage everyday, run-of-the-mill people to build and renovate green, so the last thing we want is to design a Hearst Castle look-alike and say, “You can do this, too!”

As a way to heat and cool a building, geothermal is one of those awesome green technologies that we simply can’t afford. Like the sun, wind and water, geothermal is a form of renewable energy. A geothermal unit doesn’t add pollution or greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, because no fossil fuels combust during its operation. Energy isn’t created or destroyed with geothermal—it simply changes shape. And if renewable energy is good enough for ancient Rome, it’s good enough for SN&R! Not to mention the California Legislature has required electric utilities to generate 33 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020, and SMUD committed to meeting 23 percent of its retail electricity sales with renewable energy by 2011.

In Greek, geothermal means “Earth’s heat.” At our planet’s core—4,000 miles deep—temperatures reach about 9,000 degrees Fahrenheit, thanks to a fiery consolidation of dust and gas 4 billion years ago. The extreme heat trapped in the core’s liquid rock creates naturally occurring hot water and steam, which, when close enough to the surface, can be piped to generate electricity.

A geothermal system, though, works slightly differently: It consists of a heat-pump unit, liquid heat-exchange loop and air-delivery system (ductwork). The loop is buried in the ground in shallow trenches about 3 to 6 feet deep, where the temperature is roughly 60 degrees year-round. During a heating cycle, the system regularly circulates water through the loop to extract heat from the ground and send it into a building; during cooling, the system works in the reverse by extracting heat from the building and transferring it back into the soil. It’s a basic scientific principle: Heat flows from hot matter to cold matter.

“It’s all about the loop. It’s all about what’s underground,” explained Phil Henry, a representative with WaterFurnace, a geothermal company that’s been around for the past 25 years.

Geothermal systems operate more efficiently than ordinary heating and air-conditioning systems, delivering 4 units of energy for every 1 unit of electrical energy used. Current installations save more than 14 million barrels of crude oil annually, and if one in 12 California homes installed a system, energy savings would equal the output of nine power plants.

Attention: Reality-check time! Geothermal costs a pretty penny and soil conditions around your building may not work for the system. However, these durable systems last longer than conventional HVAC package units and will lower your electric use by an estimated 70 percent.

In the United States, heating and cooling systems emit more than a half-billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. But we may have a solution. According to Henry, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared geothermal to be “the most efficient way to heat or cool any building, anywhere.” Any building, anywhere? Whoa there, EPA; simmer down. Granted, a variation of the technology was used by New Zealand’s indigenous Maori population and by the impressively advanced people of Pompeii (before Mount Vesuvius’ lava flow fried them and encased their bodies in ash for our viewing pleasure), and widespread use continues today in many parts of the world, including Southern California, where it first sprang up in the 1950s. About a half-million geothermal systems have been installed since 1980 and geothermal energy production nationwide is currently a $1.5 billion a year industry.

That said, who’d like to donate money to SN&R’s “green building for tightwads” campaign so we can buy one of these geothermal heat-pump systems? Well? Hellooo? Anybody? Answer me!