For thousands of years, humans have harnessed the natural warmth of the earth for their benefit by living in caves and gathering around natural hot springs.
The concept we now call geothermal energy is gaining popularity in modern times as well.
Andrew Smith of Rapid City designed and is now building a super energy efficient home, and a free source of heat was the only choice.
“I did my research and geothermal came out way ahead economically and environmentally,” he said.
He is using several strategies in addition to geothermal including solar panels, double thick walls and positioning the house to take advantage of sunlight in the winter and to block it in the summer.
“With geothermal heat it just makes economic sense and with solar panels we have a much smaller environmental footprint,” Smith said.
Although the concept of geothermal heating has been around for thousands of years, the technology has more recently advanced to allow homeowners to capture the earth’s heat for their use. And it has been gaining popularity as people seek alternative energy sources.
Aaron Marshall, owner of Geo Thermal-Dynamic Drilling, Inc., has helped homeowners and businesses install units in South Dakota for four years. He said he has seen an increased interest in the units lately.
He said there are misconceptions and misunderstandings about geothermal units, but Marshall said anyone with ground underneath their house can have a unit installed.
Marshall explained that indoors it looks like any other unit with a thermostat control, but the geothermal unit or ground source heat pump system pumps liquid through tubes buried underground.
Ground temperature remains fairly constant throughout the year, so it’s warmer than the air in the winter and cooler than the air in the summer. The liquid is pumped through the tubes and heated by the earth and pumped back through the house to heat the air, and the system is reversed to extract heat from the air for cooling in the summer.
“It uses such a small amount of electricity to work the pump and compressor that at a minimum it is 50 percent more efficient than any other system out there,” Marshall said.
Dale Haggberg of Spearfish installed a geothermal unit in March of last year.
“Once I studied up on it and with the tax breaks from the federal and state government,”he said. “I mean, why not do it? I figure it will pay for itself in six years.”
Before moving into his current home, Haggberg lived in a double-wide mobile home and relied on a combination of electricity and propane for most of his energy needs. But with the costs steadily rising, he researched alternatives before building his new home.
“You never know what propane is going to do, and I didn’t want to rely on it,” Haggberg said.
James Leonhardt, co-owner of Spearfish Electric and Heating, is in the process of turning his home into a showcase home for geothermal systems. He has kept the utility bills since it was built five years ago. He even recently switched to a high efficiency but is committed to using even less energy.
“I’ve had a high-efficiency air source the past few seasons, but now I’m putting in geothermal so I can show people the difference in black and white,” Leonhardt said.
Leonhardt said a couple of his customers were fairly early adopters of the geothermal system and have averaged heating bills of only a couple hundred dollars per year.
The major deterrent for installing the system is the upfront cost, Leonhardt said. But he insists that those costs will be recovered and he suggests people take advantage of a 30 percent tax credit from the federal government though 2016. He said there are also various other local incentives like rebates from the power company and a statewide property tax exemption people can take advantage of as well.
Leonhardt said rising energy prices are inevitable.
“Right now in our area our electricity costs are less than 50 percent of the national average and as we have rate increases our cost of power may go up 20 or 30 percent in the next few years,” he said. “That is when geothermal starts to make the most sense.”
He said changes in the way people are living also make a case for geothermal.
“Before people were living in their houses for three or four years and then flipping them, but now they building homes and staying there for a long time,” Leonhardt said. “I think the more people learn about it and understand it the more they are more interested in geothermal.”
Haggberg said he is questioned all the time about his geothermal unit.
“Everybody I've talked to they are inquisitive and want to know how it’s working out,” he said.
“It’s still kind of new to me, but it’s great so far,” said Haggberg, noting that the unit is extremely quiet.