Geothermal HVAC in New England

May 2013

Dear Friends,

The boom in natural gas production by using a new drilling technology, called hydrofracturing, or “fracking”, to extract the fuel from deep shale deposits in recent years has encouraged many power plants as well as building facilities to switch from coal or oil to natural gas. In addition to the short term benefits this large newly available domestic energy source can bring (Being cleaner-burning than coal, in theory, this fuel could serve as the transition between coal and renewable sources; short term job creation and economic benefits to the fuel-producing regions; reduced reliance on foreign oil, etc.), many drawbacks have also been studied and reported by various sources, such as:

1. Fracking uses large amounts of water: Each well uses between 2 million to 6 million gallons of water. (E.g., a 2011 EPA report estimated that 70 to 140 billion gallons of water are used to fracture 35,000 wells in the United States each year – approximately the annual water consumption of 40 to 80 cities each with a population of 50,000);

2. Environmental concerns since the chemicals are added to the water used for fracking;

3. Not enough savings on CO2 emissions from the increased natural gas production using fracking to reach the desired CO2 emission reduction target by 2050;

4. The country may face an uncertain energy reality when the shale gas is used up decades later: We may find ourselves having to import large amount of natural gas due to the built infrastructure based on natural gas (Great Britain’s “dash for gas” policy in the 1980’s is a good example to illustrate this undesirable situation);

5. This newly found energy boon may hinder the needed fundamental technological transformation to renewable energy future.

In addition, for the New England states, there is one practical reason to limit even the short term benefit the shale gas may bring: It’s one thing for large reservoirs of shale gas to be found below the land of Pennsylvania and a few of its neighboring states, which are not too far away, it’s another to bring that gas to the New England states, because of the inadequacy of the existing gas pipe lines in these states. Per a NYT report, utility company ISO New England, in February this year when the cold storm hits New England, expressed its concerns to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission about “increasing reliance on natural gas-fueled generators at times when there is an increasingly tight availability of pipeline capacity to deliver natural gas from the south and west to New England.”

For facility owners, architects, engineers and other building professionals in New England, how do we decide what fuel source to use for the facility’s HVAC needs, due to the uncertainties in availability and price of natural gas? There is one thing that is certain: you want to reduce the energy consumption of your HVAC systems. To that end, geothermal (ground source heat pump) HVAC system is such a good candidate: When your building saves HVAC energy cost by 40 to 70% with geothermal technology, you always win, no matter what happens to the future of natural gas!

Very Truly Yours,

George Hu, PE, LEED AP, President
AWE | Air Water Energy Engineers, Inc.

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