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Converting to Geothermal Energy

Temporary bans on new natural gas connections have prompted some New York homeowners to turn to geothermal systems.

Workers from Dandelion Energy work on a trench for geothermal loops at the home of Robert A. Culp and Vivian Linares in Garrison, NY. Credit Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

Thanks to temporary bans on new natural gas hookups in parts of New York, the market for single-family geothermal energy systems, which use underground pipes to harness the earth’s energy for heating and cooling buildings, is finally starting to make some inroads.

Geothermal energy systems use a network of underground pipes, commonly referred to as ground loops, which circulate water and propylene glycol, a type of nontoxic alcohol, all year. During the winter, the ground loops absorb the heat from the earth, which stays steady at about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. The heated liquid circulating in the loop is pushed into a pump system inside the house that then produces warm air. In the summer, the pump sucks out the warm air in the home and pushes it back into the cooler ground.

A convergence of factors, including a recently enacted state carbon emissions law, natural gas delivery constraints, and the availability of tax incentives and rebates, has persuaded some homeowners to replace their oil-burning furnaces or boilers with electric geothermal systems, instead of heating and cooling systems that run on natural gas.

“Geothermal is at a groundswell point,” for single-family homes, said David Logsdon, a section manager in Consolidated Edison’s Energy Efficiency and Demand Management department. “And it’s all part of the electrification of the industry.”

Westchester County, which includes some of the wealthiest ZIP codes in the state, has become a de facto testing ground for the state and the industry to persuade homeowners to adopt these air- and ground-source pump systems.

Con Ed, which announced its ban on new gas hookups in the county this spring because demand is outpacing gas availability, currently provides a $5,000 rebate for customers who buy a geothermal system from their partner Dandelion Energy. Combined with a rebate from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and a 30 percent federal tax credit, about $10,000 to $12,000 can be shaved off a system that can cost anywhere between $25,000 to $40,000 to purchase and install.

Adam Tucker, a Chappaqua, N.Y. resident, recently took advantage of the available savings to replace his oil-burning boiler that was over 30 years old. Mr. Tucker, an accountant, said he was floored when Con Ed gave him a $200,000 to $250,000 estimate (before the moratorium began) for him to switch over to natural gas. The hefty price tag included the cost for the digging and infrastructure work required to connect his home to the existing network.

“Who in the world would say yes to that?” Mr. Tucker said.

To look for a cheaper alternative, he started researching his options and came across Dandelion. With the available incentives, a $34,000 system was pared down to about $23,000.

Last winter, Dandelion and its partner companies took a few days to drill a hole about five inches in diameter and 500 feet deep right in front of his front steps to place the ground loops into the earth. Mr. Tucker’s system kicked in this January and he estimated that he has saved anywhere between $1,000 to $1,500 this year on his heating bill.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, modern geothermal systems do not emit any greenhouse gasses.

“Yes, you do have to pay a chunk of money upfront, but you save money in the long term and it’s so efficient,” he said, who jokingly referred to himself as the “pied piper” of geothermal since he has told many of his friends and neighbors about his new system. “It’s really a neat option because it gets you off of oil.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, geothermal systems are about 48 percent more efficient than gas furnaces and 75 percent more efficient than oil furnaces. The U.S. Energy Department says consumers can cut their energy bills by up to 65 percent when compared to traditional heating and cooling systems.

For its part, Con Ed plans to spend more than $175 million over the next six years on programs and incentives for air- and ground-source heat pumps.

“If you’re going to have renewable energy be a primary source, then customers need choices,” Mr. Logsdon said.

Meanwhile, National Grid, which serves energy consumers on Long Island and in parts of Brooklyn and Queens, said its residential geothermal energy demonstration program in Riverhead, N.Y., has been so successful, that the utility is looking to expand its program. Pending regulatory approval, it seeks to install geothermal systems totaling 2,700 tons of capacity for a mix of residential and commercial properties. (Each single-family home typically requires the installation of a three- to five-ton capacity system.)

National Grid announced its temporary natural gas moratorium in May largely because the state denied permits for the construction of the 23-mile Williams Pipeline, a new natural gas pipe from Middlesex County, N.J., to Rockaway, Queens. Natural gas now comes from an existing pipeline that runs essentially the same route.

The utility in late 2017 installed a large shared geothermal system that was tapped by 10 homes in Glenwood Village, a retirement community in Riverhead. For the January to May 2018 heating season, each home saved about $283, or 38 percent, when compared to using propane or kerosene the previous year.

Owen Brady, manager of the Future of Heat program at National Grid, said the ground loops were as easy to install as the utility’s gas pipes and the savings each homeowner saw was compelling enough to seek an expansion.

“The system definitely does more with less,” he said.

Since starting her business in 2017, Kathy Hannun, the chief executive of Dandelion, said the firm has installed hundreds of systems throughout the state. Sales in Westchester County have grown by 20 percent every month since its deal with ConEd was announced in April.

“We’re now at the point where we need to invest more money into staff training to keep up with demand,” Ms. Hannun said.

Zachary Fink, owner of ZBF Geothermal in Commack, N.Y., echoed Ms. Hannun’s desire for additional skilled trade labor, noting that he’s on track to install 85 geothermal systems in homes on Long Island and Queens, twice the number compared to last year.

About a decade ago, Mr. Fink said he mostly got calls from eco-conscious clients. Now he’s getting inquiries from people looking for long-term savings and a “small but growing” number of people who do not have another option because of the temporary gas moratorium. He has also gotten calls from homeowners whose boilers were badly corroded by saltwater during Superstorm Sandy.

Susan Rowe Harrison said she was tired of the costly, yearly fixes she had to make on the 35-year-old gas-fueled boiler that was heating her three-bedroom house in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. Looking for a smaller, energy efficient system, she talked to five heating and cooling companies before purchasing a Dandelion geothermal unit in April, which she financed with a 20-year loan.

Because the system runs on electricity, Ms. Rowe Harrison said her monthly electric bill between May and July rose by an average of $14, over the same period last year.

Even though a 30-foot crane was camped on her lawn for about a week during the drilling and installation process in April, Ms. Rowe Harrison said no one would know now that they had a geothermal system unless it came up in conversation.

“Even though you can’t see it, I feel like I made a significant investment in my home,” she said.

Sustainable Westchester, a nonprofit that encourages clean energy, sees many similarities between the current geothermal market and the area’s residential solar market about a decade ago.

“The way the market has taken off proves that the moratorium on natural gas availability does not mean the end of the world,” said Ron Kamen, a program director at the nonprofit.

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