The future is just about now: heating your house with geothermal energy

If you feel a wave of hopelessness the next time you look at your utility bill because the cost of heating your home seems like it's more and more out of control, keep your fingers crossed. Sooner or later, geothermal energy will take off. Maybe it already has. A few quick steps and a tax-deductible investment could help you cut your heating bills by two-thirds. Ready to learn what you need to know?

First, what the heck is geothermal energy?
It's energy that comes from ground water.

So why should we care?
You know how caves are always about 55 degrees? If it's the summer and you go in a cave, it's 55 degrees. If's the dead of the winter and minus 11 on the mercury, but you go into a cave, it's 55 degrees. Well, ground water works the same way.

The cost of putting in a geothermal energy pump.
The good news is that after it's been installed, your energy costs will be cut by two-thirds. The bad news is that it can cost three to four more times than a standard home heating and cooling system. I've read numbers as low as $14,000 and as high as $70,000. On the other hand, when the financial bailout bill was recently passed, it included the Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008, section 105, which provides a 30% tax credit, up to $2,000 maximum, for installing a geothermal heat pump anytime during 2008 through 2016. So that may help some beleaguered homeowners who try installing one of these things.

How to install a geothermal energy pump.
Oh, it's a piece of cake. Just go to the This Old House web site, and they'll show you a video and, apparently after digging a very deep hole, they'll walk you through nine steps, that include mere little things like assembling a radiant-heat manifold with circulating pump, sensor, relay switch and mixing valve. (Don't ask me what a manifold is.)

If you don't want to try installing one on your own.
You might want to try the Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium, a web site that will tell you more about geothermal energy than you ever wanted to know.

Why you might not have to install a pump at all.
Some power plants are already all over this. Not many, but some. Raser Technologies in Provo, Utah, just turned on a new power plant on November 6. They'll be supplying electricity to Anaheim, California and eventually will be providing electricity to one-third of Utah homes--all done without any emissions polluting our air.

What's more, they're producing electricity from water with a new heat transfer technology, and their plant was able to be built in just six months (most geothermal power plants take five to seven years to be constructed). According to one of the spokesmen for Raser Tech, the United States is "the Saudi Arabia of geothermal water. We have more geothermal resources than any other country in the world."

So, sure, most of us aren't going to run out and install a geothermal heat pump in our backyard, and most of us won't have a geothermal plant powering our house's electricity within the next several months. But one of these days... just maybe. In the meantime, hopefully you like sweaters and won't mind adjusting that thermostat.

Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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