With record-low temperatures locking students in a deep freeze, heating our houses and apartments is becoming costly. Summer price hikes in natural gas have led DTE Energy to significantly increase gas bills despite more recent drops in market prices, further adding to the woes of cash-strapped students. The answer to this dilemma — and perhaps the answer to the dilemma of usable clean energy altogether — may rest below our feet. That answer is geothermal heating and energy generation.

Geothermal heating and electrical generation are two different processes, but both carry enormous potential for a greener future for people across the country. To generate electricity, geothermal power plants use heat from hot underground sources to power electrical generators. Geothermal heat pumps, on the other hand, use pipes beneath a building to regulate temperatures of the building and the ground. Since underground temperatures remain constant all year, geothermal heat pumps heat buildings in the winter and cool them in the summer.

But what makes this technology so special? Since geothermal sources don’t require fossil fuels to extract heat energy and take up a relatively small area, emissions and damage to the local countryside are minimal. Geothermal heat pumps are between 25 and 75 percent more efficient for heating and cooling than traditional systems depending on where the system is set up and the scale of the heating system.

The best part is that geothermal heating and electricity aren’t beholden to global markets, weather patterns or the time of day. Regardless of what’s happening on the surface of the Earth, the constant underground temperatures mean more stable heating bills for consumers and more clean baseline electricity that can be provided at any time, night or day.

Of course, as with any seemingly perfect solution, there are a few catches. These geothermal heating systems have been around for decades but cost twice as much to install as traditional heating units. Their expense has scared off consumers who don’t want to wait a decade to recoup their investment. But with rising energy prices, geothermal heat pumps are now much more attractive and companies specializing in them have reported significant sales growth. ClimateMaster, the nation’s largest manufacturer of ground-source heat pump equipment, saw a revenue increase of 200 percent between 2005 and 2007.

Another question is where geothermal power plants could be placed. For a geothermal plant to work, it’s necessary to locate hot rocks in the earth. The only way to locate them is by drilling, which can wreak environmental havoc if done irresponsibly. Drilling also isn’t cheap, making the fixed cost of setting up a plant much higher.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Department of Energy (DOE) estimate the potential for geothermal power in the U.S. to be enormous. The DOE estimates that within four decades, 10 to 20 percent of our electricity can come from geothermal plants if there is enough interest to encourage large-scale investment. Enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) currently under development will open up much of the country to geothermal power generation. An investment of around one billion dollars over the next two decades could make this possible.

The call is being answered by an unlikely source. Google recently announced a $10 million initial investment in EGS technology because the company feels the technology is the answer to the green energy crisis. Google has also announced it is working with General Electric and taking advantage of its steam turbine expertise for the initiative. The U.S. Department of the Interior has also opened up millions of acres of land in 12 western states for geothermal energy exploration.

This is a fantastic start, but the technology needs more funding and careful stewardship. Drilling is a very risky exercise for the environment, with solvents and lubricants possibly threatening groundwater. It’s great to reduce carbon emissions, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of the local environment where a geothermal plant is placed.

With energy prices riding a perpetual roller coaster and greenhouse emissions remaining a huge threat to the environment, part of the answer comes from the ground we walk on. Savings in geothermal heating and electricity would reduce carbon emissions by millions of tons per year and bring the U.S. closer to having a viable, sustainable, clean electrical grid. Now, it’s up to private and public investment to make this possible.

Ben Caleca can be reached at calecab@umich.edu.

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