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This is the story about the Westchester County, New York, natural gas moratorium imposed by Con Edison in March 2019. It’s also about a man on a mission: his name is Bob Wyman, who spoke about this issue at the Con Edison gas hearings at the White Plains Library, Feb. 13, 2019.
Before getting too deep into the story, I'd like to point out that the very reason this issue came up (running out of NG capacity) — barring any emissions concerns, infrastructure costs or other matters — is because existing pipelines could not handle the capacity of the growth in the area. Putting in more NG capacity was out of the question.
The normal “business-as-usual” solution would have been to upgrade the gas capacity in the ground or, in other words, install larger and more NG pipeline capacity. But it does not fall in line with the 80 percent emissions reduction strategy of New York state and, indeed, the world. What we have found while going through this exercise is there are several solutions far more beneficial than we even realized.
We needed a renewable energy heat source since natural gas is used to provide combustion heat for homes and businesses.
Natural gas, geothermal differences
Natural gas systems and geothermal heating and cooling systems need a pipe in the ground. Interestingly, it is the same material for both types of pipelines — high-density polyethylene. However, there are several major differences between the two energy sources.
The first difference is geothermal pipe does not consume anything. Rather, it's constantly recycling the renewable characteristics of the thermal energy in the earth.
The next item to note is geothermal provides heating and cooling. Natural gas provides space heating only.
Finally, and perhaps the most important item, is there are no on-site emissions with an all-electric geothermal heat pump.
In one simple strategic move, we have eliminated the need to supply other consumable resources (such as natural gas) to this pipeline by installing a permanent geothermal pipeline for homes and businesses. As a result, there will be no shortages or price hikes due to supply and demand. The thermal resources of the planet will always be available for the nominal charge of the electrical pumping energy.
The first question people might ask is how much does it cost to put in a natural gas pipeline compared to a geothermal heating and cooling pipeline? According to Con Ed, the average natural gas run is 49 feet and costs rate-payers $22,000. This is the cost only for the tap from the main to the house; it does not include the furnace or any other costs.
According to Central Hudson Gas & Electric, it can be closer to $35,000 per customer to keep the gas on with older pipelines. In that case, the utility notes, it would be better to switch those customers to a geothermal line.
The average cost of a geothermal loop is about $15,000. Comparing the two, the geothermal pipe is favorable in first costs and, with no consumables associated with it, it becomes a durable piece of infrastructure — quite the opposite of a natural gas pipe, which becomes a stranded asset essentially.
Upgrading to geothermal
I've had the privilege of working with natural gas companies for a few years now. I've watched them dabble with the possibility of becoming a geothermal utility. After all, they are in the energy business. Most any financial analysis would prove that it's a better business model to sell a connection to an energy source on site, perpetual and renewable.
I was pleased to get my hands on a presentation from Central Hudson Gas & Electric, which showed a strategic upgrade of their natural gas system to a distributed geothermal heating and cooling system.
It's nothing new; geothermal utilities have been growing over the last couple of decades. Smart-energy utilities such as Con Edison, National Grid and Enbridge are leaving no stones unturned as they investigate the virtues of getting into the geothermal energy distribution business.
Energy utilities have invested our money into natural gas infrastructure. Similar geothermal loop structure costs less and has all the virtues needed to help us reach our goals to reduce carbon emissions and use renewable energy. The real focus here comes down to complete electrification of our homes and buildings. Simply put, the grid already has a good supply of green energy satisfying our needs, such as solar energy or wind farms.
On April 1, New York Joint Utilities (all utilities acting as a group) requested approval from the New York Public Service Commission to spend an additional $289 million on heat pump deployment before 2025. In the document, each utility lays out its plan for achieving its share of the PSC's order that New York State save 5 trillion BTU via heat pump installations by the end of 2025. Much of this spending is in addition to the $250 million already approved for the Westchester Country Clean Energy Action Plan, which addresses the gas moratorium in the county.
Are you concerned because you don’t have the time to become certified as a designer or installer? That’s no problem. Most everyone needs continuing education units to keep their license current with the authorities that have jurisdiction. You can go online and earn six hours of CEUs while getting a good overview of the technology from the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association (www.igshpa.org).
Log on to the course, “Introduction to Geothermal Systems Technology,” to get started on your way. You can stay online for more in-depth courses. For plumbers, note that the pipe is HDPE; it handles and installs similar to gas pipe. There’s a much opportunity for trade uptake within the existing skillset.
Special thanks to Bob Wyman — beneficial electrification advocate, geothermal heat pump advocate, founder of Dandelion Energy and Google consultant — for his vigilance in mining data for years that has helped bring these numbers and these results.