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Monday, October 8, 2012, 6:55 am

California lowers hurdles for geothermal ground-loop technology

‘Permitting process has been described as a regulatory quagmire’

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    SACRAMENTO — California Gov. Jerry Brown on Sept. 27 signed into law Assembly Bill 2339, designed to identify and eliminate legal and statutory impediments affecting the adoption and use of geothermal heat pump and geothermal ground-loop technologies.

    Air Connection of Santa Rosa installs a geothermal ground loop and heat pump system at the Sonoma County Water Agency at 1315 Airport Blvd. north of Santa Rosa.

    That would make it easier to build systems such as the one Sonoma County Water Agency had installed next to its offices near Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport. The agency has proposed a much larger loop that would serve dozens of commercial buildings in the airport industrial areas, potentially reducing energy demands for heating and cooling dramatically.

    These geo systems use the renewable energy of the earth and the sun to provide heating and air conditioning, domestic hot water as well as pool and spa heating more efficiently than other technologies without consuming fossil fuels on site, according to industry reports.

    Championed by the California Geothermal Heat Pump Lobby Coalition (CalGeo) and GeoExchange Solutions, Inc., AB 2339 passed the state Senate 36-0 on Aug. 28, and by 79-0 in the Assembly the following day.

    California is the third state to pass such legislation. Maryland and New Hampshire already broadened the definition of renewable energy to include geothermal heat pumps.  

    While AB 2339 establishes a path for California to get there, this bill stops short of recognizing GHPs as a renewable source of energy that utilities can claim.  

    The new law adds Section 25228 to the Public Resources Code, requiring the California Energy Commission (CEC) — in consultation with the Public Utilities Commission, the Air Resources Board, as well as cities, municipalities and other stakeholders — to recommend policies and implement strategies to overcome barriers to embracing GHP and geothermal ground loop technologies.

    Industry leaders say a lack of policymaker and regulator knowledge and trust in geo system benefits has led to misunderstandings of the feasibility and cost effectiveness of such systems.

    “The geothermal ground loop bore field permitting process has been described as a regulatory quagmire. This law changes the way the CEC interacts with the geothermal industry and is intended to eliminate existing discrimination,” said Phil Henry, president of the California Geothermal Heat Pump Association, Inc.

    “We have been trying to get fair treatment and acceptance of this technology in California Energy Efficiency Standards for decades. The industry is not asking for state subsidies, but only that systemic roadblocks be removed to allow market forces to do their work.”

    AB 2339 requires the CEC to consider statutory and permit requirements and other obstacles to the use of geothermal at a time when California is striving to comply with the AB 32 greenhouse gas emission reduction goals and meet the state’s energy efficiency objectives. The CEC is also directed to study industry and quantitative benefits for ratepayers to be derived by deploying geothermal techniques.

    “One of the barriers involves updating compliance software to properly model Geo technology’s ground-coupling element so true energy savings under Title 24 (the CEC’s Building Energy Efficiency Program) can be realized by building owners, architects and engineers as they consider more efficient alternatives to conventional systems,” said Lisa Meline, Chair of CalGeo and President of Meline Engineering Corporation.

    The CEC is further required to include its recommended policies and strategies to overcome Geo technology barriers in its Integrated Energy Policy Report for calendar year 2013. 

    Ms. Meline also serves on the standards committee of the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association and chairs ASHRAE, the technical committee addressing geothermal heat pump and energy recovery applications.

    The misapplication of water well drilling rules to geothermal ground loop systems has been a key issue.

    “A state standard for Geo borehole construction is needed so all county regulatory agencies are referencing a common baseline requirement for permitting,” she said.

    Draft geothermal heat exchange well standards were sent to the Department of Water Resources in April 1999 but were never adopted. Without it there is no official guidance document for Geo ground-coupling technology.

    In addition, the tiered rate structure offered by independent operating utility companies has penalized all-electric mechanical systems, including geothermal heat pumps, according to industry sources.

    “The benefit to the utilities of the geo heat pumps is that they use less energy — 0.5 killowatts per ton — than more conventional systems during cooling seasons, which helps reduce overall demand on peak cooling days,” Ms. Meline added. 

    “They also operate during the winter when the load on electric utilities is lower. In some states there is a preferential rate structure for building owners who install geo heat pumps.”

    The U.S. Department of Energy reported that nearly 44 percent of all carbon-dioxide emissions in the country are the result of using energy to heat, cool and provide hot water for buildings.

    “Educating architects, engineers, contractors and the general public concerning the benefits of Geo heat pumps and ground loop systems is essential,” according to Doug Dougherty, President and CEO of the national Geothermal Exchange Organization in Washington, D.C., a non-profit trade association.

    “There are many misconceptions about the technology that can be resolved with accurate information – not marketing data – on energy savings, costs and the correct application of this technology.  More than two million Geo heat pumps and ground loop systems have already been installed across the U.S.”

    At the federal level, tax credits of 10 percent for commercial buildings and 30 percent for residential applications are effective through 2016 to help offset construction costs.

    Geothermal ground loops are sustainable BTU producing utilities with a conservative life expectancy of greater than 50 years without ongoing maintenance requirements.

    Geothermal heat pumps have been found to reduce energy consumed by residential heating and air conditioning systems by an average of 44 percent, according to preliminary findings of the California Geothermal Energy Collaborative in an ongoing CEC Public Interest Energy Research Program (PIER) study.

    For more information on these systems, visit the Geothermal Exchange Organization website (www.geoexchange.org).

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