Government entities at all levels are taking an increased interest in geothermal technology as they work to reduce costs and carbon emissions.

Ryan Dougherty, chief operating officer of the Geothermal Exchange Organization, said the U.S. Department of Defense has been the biggest government adopter of geothermal technology. The DoD has installed geothermal systems at bases across the globe, Dougherty said. The Pentagon’s main motivator differs from most others, however. The military is mostly concerned with creating a hard target.

For other government entities, it’s often about the cost savings. That was the case for Adair County, Missouri. The municipality is installing a geothermal system to heat and cool the county courthouse. When completed, it will replace a combination of a boiler and window a/c units that have been heating and cooling the 123-year-old building. The courthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Adair County is a surprising leader in alternative energy. The total population for the county is only a little more than 25,000, but it will soon boast the state’s largest solar farm, along with the geothermal project.

Adair County Presiding Commissioner Mark Shahan said the county commission opted for the geothermal system on the recommendation of its general contractor, CTS Group. Shahan said CTS handled hiring the subcontractor rather than the county commission putting it out for bid because the bidding process would have been too expensive.

This caused some controversy among Adair County residents. So did the price tag for the geothermal system, which is higher than that of a traditional system. In addition, the price of the project rose due to the supply crunch affecting all parts of the HVAC industry. Shahan said the initial costs are higher, but the long-term costs will be lower and CTS provided a financial guarantee of that.

“There is a substantial savings with this type of system,” he said.


Upfront Costs Offset by Long-Term Savings

Just eliminating the window units will produce a savings, Shahan said. Now each room will have a dedicated control console. The project involves drilling 30 wells, each 300 feet deep.

Shahan said CTS is also pursuing grants to help offset the initial cost. Dougherty said incentives do exists for government bodies, but they are more complicated than the tax credits for consumers. Still, he said, geothermal remains attractive to public bodies because of the cost to heat and cool the very large buildings governments use.

“When government building supervisors or energy managers are faced with either new construction or a retrofit, we’ve seen many instances where they look at their options and when you start looking at the math, the geosystem pays for itself, fairly rapidly in some instances,” Dougherty said.

That was the case in Michigan, where state government officials went with a geothermal system for the capitol building. This became the third such project, following Oklahoma and Colorado. The Michigan project is the largest one yet, consisting of more than 200 wells, each 500 feet deep. Estimates are the switch to geothermal will save the state $300,000 a year.

Many public bodies worry about saving the planet along with saving money. That’s one reason many universities are installing geothermal systems, Dougherty said. One of these is at the University of Wisconsin’s main campus in Madison. The university uses a system of 75 wells to heat its Wisconsin Institute for Discovery research complex.

The system cost $1.25 million in 2009 but is expected to last for 50 years. More than two-thirds of the funding for the facility came from private gifts from alumni.

“The decision to include a geothermal system in the facility design reflects one of the core principles of this project — a commitment to using best practices for sustainable development,” said George Austin, building project manager for the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, in a release at the time of the project’s announcement.