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Steamed About Energy

Geothermal Heat Pump Backers Want Into the Energy Bill

Dan Ellis, president of Oklahoma-based ClimateMaster Inc., doesn’t want his little-known industry left out when it comes to energy legislation.

So, Ellis — along with his colleagues in the formerly Washington, D.C.-shy geothermal heat pump sector — has embarked on an intensive lobbying effort in recent weeks to push Congress to include tax incentives and other measures to promote their business in the energy bill.

“I should’ve been there earlier,” Ellis said. “Our industry is not very good at working the Washington side of things. We kind of woke up and said, ‘We’ve gotta go out there. We have, like, an answer that really solves a lot of the problems. We better get out there and start telling our story.’”

Ellis’ geothermal heat pump effort offers a glimpse into how myriad alternative energy industries are trying to find opportunities in the hotly debated Congressional effort to tackle global warming and reduce reliance on foreign fuels. For their part, geothermal pump advocates say they are trying to get their industry the same recognition as solar and wind alternatives.

And perhaps their work is paying off. On Friday, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) introduced a bill that would establish a geothermal heat pump technology acceleration program to encourage the federal government to use the pumps to heat and cool its buildings.

“My home state of Oklahoma has long been an energy leader for our country,” Inhofe said in a statement. “I am proud of Oklahoma companies like ClimateMaster that are developing promising technologies, such as geothermal heat pumps, that could substantially reduce energy demands and pollution from the operation of federal buildings.”

Unlike geothermal power plants, which drill down into the Earth’s core as much as 20 miles and draw on the earth’s heat to create energy, geothermal heat pumps are individual systems that can heat and cool homes or commercial buildings. While gas and propane furnaces, for example, must burn fuel to heat a home, geothermal heat pumps use the Earth’s natural heat, which is collected through a series of fluid-filled, looped pipes installed several feet underground. In the summer, the process works like a refrigerator; instead of cooling the home with cold air, the hot air from the house is sucked out and expelled through the pipes back into the ground.

Jack DiEnna, executive director of the D.C.-based Geothermal Heat Pump National & International Initiative, said geothermal heat pumps help increase U.S. energy independence because they reduce the need for foreign fuel. They also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the use of water, he said.

DiEnna added that he is lobbying on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) energy proposal to get geothermal heat pumps specifically included as renewable energy sources. “What Sen. Reid’s bill addresses is geothermal energy and production, and I want it to include geothermal heat pumps,” he said.

He said Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) have expressed an interest in the heat pump technology and several sources said Inhofe’s stand-alone bill is expected to be incorporated as an amendment to the energy bill, perhaps this week, and could be co-sponsored by Clinton.

The geothermal heat pump industry also is pushing for a bill introduced by Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, that would extend business tax credits to the pump systems.

“Bart believes more businesses would choose this technology if it were more affordable, so his bill expands existing energy tax credits to geothermal heat pumps,” wrote Gordon’s press secretary, Julie Eubank, in an e-mail.

John Kelly, the Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium’s executive director, said his group has focused on Members of Congressional committees with tax-writing authority: the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees.

“We’re supportive of having geothermal heat pumps on a level playing field with the other renewable energies,” Kelly said. “It’s important to have geothermal heat pumps included explicitly so that people understand the tax credits do apply.”

Scott Segal, an energy lobbyist with Bracewell & Giuliani, who represents ClimateMaster, said wind and solar alternatives often overshadow geothermal. “Solar doesn’t work when the sun doesn’t shine, and wind doesn’t work when the wind doesn’t blow, but geothermal heat pumps work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” he said.

It’s not just the pump industry that’s pushing for the measures, either.

Kevin McCray, executive director of the National Ground Water Association, said tax or other incentives for geothermal heat pumps would be a boon to his members, who construct wells and have the technology to dig the bore holes required for the pumps.

“That’s why we’ve been supportive of legislation that would increase the use of that technology,” he said. McCray’s group has been working with lobbyist Cartier Esham of Dutko Worldwide to push the issue on Capitol Hill.

James Bose, executive director of the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association, said the pumps are “by far the No. 1 energy conserving technology we have in this country and around the world,” adding that they probably save more energy than all other energy alternatives combined.

It’s not just the manufacturers who wax poetic about the systems. Technical experts also agree that geothermal heat pumps come with many advantages. “What Dan says is generally highly credible,” said Harvey Sachs, director of the buildings program at the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, referring to ClimateMaster’s Ellis. “He’s an advocate, he believes in it. He’s betting his career on it.”

But, Sachs added: “It is not a panacea. There is no technology that is a panacea.” On the downside, for example, it costs about double to install a geothermal heat pump system than a traditional one.

That high initial cost pays for itself in regions with cold winters like New England, Sachs said. But in areas such as Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where temperatures remain more constant throughout the year, it’s harder to justify the cost, he said. “The payback on heating and cooling is not that great.”

Ellis acknowledged the hurdles, particularly those in coming late to the lobbying scene. “Our biggest problem is most people aren’t aware of it,” he said. “We’re an underground technology, pun intended. We got in late, but I’m optimistic that we will somehow prevail.”