For my very first story in The NEWS, I talked to a woman at Bosch who said something that’s stuck with me ever since. I was asking about big master-planned developments that use geothermal technology, and in passing, she threw out the term “geo hoods.” Basically, it means installing geothermal at the neighborhood scale. It might mean a small-scale developer building a cluster of 30 homes. Or, it might mean retrofitting an existing subdivision with geothermal technology.
I follow a blog called Strong Towns, which talks a lot about how new development needs to be sustainable from an infrastructure perspective. The suburban sprawl that popped up post-WWII is not sustainable, contends Chuck Marohn, founder of the blog. If we keep building more and more subdivisions, we’ll eventually run into a crisis when all the infrastructure that makes suburbia possible needs to be repaired: think roads, water and sewer lines, and gas lines. That’s not cheap.
Take the example of Lafayette, Louisiana: population 125,000 — an ordinary American city. An average house in Lafayette costs $150,000, meaning the homeowner pays $1,500 per year in taxes to the local government. Of that, about $150 goes to infrastructure maintenance. Marohn added up the replacement cost of all the city’s infrastructure — an expense that cumulatively comes around once a generation — and it came to $32 billion. But the entire tax base of the city came to just $16 billion.
To maintain the existing roads, drainage systems, and underground utilities like water and sewer, the average household’s taxes would need to go from $1,500 per year to $9,200 per year. That means one out of every five dollars a family makes would need to go to fixing roads, ditches, and pipes — just to tread water.
The median household income in Lafayette is $41,000.
“That will never happen,” Marohn said. But someone’s got to pay. Or else, when those roads are full of potholes and the water mains keep breaking, we’re all going to be majorly screwed over.
In New York, state utility Con Edison came face-to-face with an infrastructure issue when tasked with extending gas pipelines into certain rural areas of Westchester County. Enter “Non-Pipeline Solutions.” Instead of extending the lines, Con Edison decided on a neighborhood retrofit: paying for, installing, and owning 200 ground loops and heat pumps for single-family homes. Homeowners would have the option to buy a heat pump and hook up to the system.
“The proposed solution is cost-effective for all parties involved,” wrote Enver Avecedo, associate counsel for Con Edison.
Something similar is happening on a smaller scale in Novi, Michigan, about 20 minutes from my hometown of Farmington, with a new development geared toward empty-nesters that got approved last summer. The development is one of the first solar-powered neighborhoods in the state, and plans for renewable energy were a key reason it got the go-ahead from local authorities.
The decision to go with solar was made after technology and costs proved it would be feasible, said developer Mark Guidobono.
“The technology and affordability is here to greatly reduce the residents’ carbon footprint,” he said. “I think empty-nesters would love not receiving an electric bill on a monthly basis.”
I’ll bet a lot of families in my city would like that, too. In some neighborhoods, the system they’re paying for just isn’t delivering; the power goes out every week or two.
“Every time the wind blows,” goes the adage. Of course, these outages always seem to happen on the hottest, stickiest days of the year, when everyone has their a/c cranked up. And it’s affecting people’s lives and well-being. I’ve heard stories like, “Each time the power goes out, we have to get the kids out of the stuffy house, keep them entertained, take the family out for dinner, and that’s not something we’ve budgeted for.”
Doug Dougherty, CEO of the Geothermal Exchange Organization, said an electrical utility near him just built a new plant because it needed more power at peak capacity.
“They raised their rates to pay for that plant,” he said. “For the money they spent building that plant, you could have converted 10,000 homes in Springfield, shaved that peak, and wouldn’t have needed the unit. And it’s not a loser for them. It’s a moneymaker for them.”
Plus, it’s a better deal for homeowners; in a similar retrofit program in Illinois, energy bills were $28 per month. It’s a better deal for the environment. And, it breaks that cycle of unsustainability, because each home would rely on its own power, not a decades-old pipeline with a looming life span.
Infrastructure should exist to serve us, said Marohn, not the other way around. That begs the question: If we need to spend money to get more capacity, wouldn’t it make more sense to invest those dollars into a cheaper, more sustainable energy source, like the example in New York?
Publication date: 5/27/2019