Circle of Nations School
- Wahpeton ND

Geothermal Loops to Save School Money

Heating, cooling system taps temps underground

WAHPETON, N.D. - Players scrimmaging on the football field at the Circle of Nations School probably have no idea they're trampling over parts of the campus cooling-and-heating system.

But there's no worry that their cleats will cause any damage - loops for a geothermal heating and cooling exchange are buried deep underground, where consistently mild temperatures help to significantly reduce energy costs.

Circle of Nations School, a boarding school for American Indian students, is drilling 390 holes to a depth of 150 feet or more as part of a project to use geothermal energy to heat and cool 11 buildings.

The energy efficiency project - one of a growing number of geothermal systems installed throughout North Dakota - is part of an overhaul of the school's cooling and heating system, with a price tag approaching $2 million.

But savings in fuel costs mean the geothermal system should be paid for in five years, said Robert Peck, facility manager for Circle of Nations School. That made it a clear winner, he said, when the school considered its options. "The geothermal looked to be the best, the most efficient and environmentally friendly," Peck said.

Geothermal heating-and-cooling systems, which work in tandem with highly efficient heat pumps, have become increasingly popular because of spiking natural gas and fuel oil costs, said Lorraine Manz, a geologist with the North Dakota Geological Survey, which issues drilling permits for the projects. "We've certainly seen an increase in interest in recent years," she said.

So far, the largest geothermal project in North Dakota is Discovery Middle School in Fargo, which has 688 wells. Kennedy Elementary School in Fargo has 288 wells, and Woodhaven Plaza, also in Fargo, has 144 wells.

Although large public buildings are obvious candidates for geothermal systems - the new Bank of North Dakota will be equipped to tap geothermal power - homeowners also can take advantage.

By drilling down 150 to 200 feet, geothermal loop systems circulate fluid through a layer of earth with temperatures consistently within a band of 48 degrees to 54 degrees.

"We're not actually pulling steam out of the ground," said Vincent Falk of Falk Ground Source Technology of Hankinson, ND, which is installing the geothermal loops. "We're pulling heat out of the ground." Tapping those underground mild temperatures year-round means much less energy is expended to heat or cool a building. For every $1 in heating costs, for example, he estimates 70 cents goes to create the heat, while 30 cents is to circulate the heat, through fans and ducts.

Geothermal systems essentially wipe away the cost of heating or cooling the air, allowing for a savings of 70 percent in operating costs, Falk said. "You become more energy independent,' said Marlin Galde, a consultant for the Circle of Nations School. "Your only real cost is electricity to run the pumps."

Although upfront costs are higher for geothermal systems, they often pay off within two to five years, Falk said. Geothermal systems typically cost 30 percent to 40 percent more than conventional systems, he said. In the early 1980s and 1990s, lenders often were reluctant to loan money to install the systems. Now the technology is proven, and most lenders are more comfortable, he said. Another financial sweetener: Geothermal systems qualify for renewable energy tax credits in North Dakota.

John Robinson, an estimator and installer for Paschke Heating & Cooling in Fargo, said customers are showing increased interest in replacing conventional systems with geothermal units. "The retrofit market is definitely starting to come alive," he said. Interest is especially keen among homeowners with big houses and heating bills to match. For a rather typical home, with about 2,000 square feet, he estimated the cost of installing a loop field at about $5,000, with about $12,000 to $15,000 for a heat pump system. But costs can vary greatly; those who already have forced air systems with ducts cost much less to install than homes without those features, Robinson said. "With the energy crisis I think people are looking into it more and more," he said. Heat pump systems generally last 15 to 20 years or longer. "The loop field will last forever," Robinson said. That's news good for homeowners, and for the football field at the Circle of Nations School.

Excerpt from the Forum Newspaper, Fargo, ND
Article by Patrick Springer