From the Ground Up Ground Source ImageWe know the technology for tapping into climate-friendly ground-source energy exists, but it could be more commonplace with the right financial incentives. So far, only a few entrepreneurs, non-profits, and local governments in our region have been moving on projects that tap into ground-source heat. With more support from local governments, the Northwest could begin to see neighborhood-scale development of an energy source that is clean and self-sustaining—and that can support plenty of green jobs too.

But the projects are capital intensive, with lots of construction and up-front costs. District energy models, a pretty common way to deliver energy to buildings, along with bond financing, might be part of the answer.  

  • Just a few feet below the surface, the Earth’s temperature is quite stable. Ground-source heating takes advantage of the Earth’s reliable temperature by using fluid-filled pipes buried underground to transmit warmth into houses in the winter.  Ground-source heat pumps work on the same principle as air-source heat pumps: they extract the hot or cold from the environment with a compressor to heat and cool buildings. Other projects tap into naturally occurring underground hot springs or force water deep into even hotter parts of the Earth to keep buildings warm in the winter, and generate energy for building operations and manufacturing.

    In Portland, a school put together a plan to create a neighborhood-scale ground-source heating project. The Sunnyside Neighborhood Energy project would have replaced an old oil-burning boiler with ground-source heating that would have heated not just the school but the surrounding neighborhood. The project didn’t get funded last year, but with plans in place and stimulus dollars starting to flow, it’s a project that is shovel ready.

    From the Ground Up Sunnyside

    In Klamath Falls, Oregon, ground-source energy from naturally occurring springs warms buildings downtown, provides heat for beer making at a local brewhouse, and generates electricity for a college campus. And a project has been proposed in Boulder, Colorado that claims it will be the first net-zero neighborhood in the United States with its energy primarily coming from solar and neighborhood-scale ground-source energy.

    All these projects point to the availability of the technology and the know-how to make neighborhood-scale ground-source energy possible. Why isn’t this approach more prevalent? Two reasons often come up. The first is a common one for all clean-energy projects: financing. Neighborhood-scale ground-source energy projects require a lot of up-front capital. Some ground-source heating projects, for example, require pipes buried deep in the ground. There is a long-term pay off for investing in infrastructure, but the length of the pay back period can vary. And if utilities don’t offer rebates (as they don’t in parts of Washington) or banks won’t loan the money, the projects won’t happen.

    The second reason ground-source energy isn’t more prevalent is a myriad of land-use, street-use, and financing requirements that local governments haven’t been motivated to change on a large scale. Installing what amounts to centralized heating and cooling for an entire neighborhood isn’t something that homeowners, even if motivated and enthusiastic, can do without permits, financing, and support from local utilities. If the benefits of ground-source heating—efficiency, jobs, less CO2, and savings—are to arrive local governments have to step up with political will and money to start pilot projects. 

    One option is to look at the hundreds of energy districts already functioning efficiently all over the world and in our own region. In Seattle, for example, Seattle Steam provides centralized energy from a biomass boiler. Eugene also has downtown district energy from the Eugene Water and Electric Board. Cities like Seattle could create Neighborhood Energy Districts and financing infrastructure using Qualified Energy Efficiency Bonds and using some of the savings to pay back the bonds (Green Increment Financing).  Creating these districts and financing will require a lot of focus and dedication from local officials—which seems to be missing. The principles of district energy and ground-source heat have already been proven quite effective.