A growing number of Seattle residents frustrated with climbing fuel costs are exploring the use of geothermal heat for heating and cooling. Some school districts, including the Lake Washington district and Seattle Public Schools, already use underground heat at some schools to save money. Now, other schools and more homeowners are considering the alternative.
In the Puget Sound region, the temperature 6 feet underground is a constant 49.5 degrees Fahrenheit - warmer than the average air temperature in the winter and cooler than the average in the summer. Geothermal heat systems, which funnel that underground heat through pipes and into a heat pump or exchanger, cost about twice as much as traditional heating systems to install. They also require large amounts of space for underground pipes. But once in place, the alternative energy is estimated to cut costs by 25 percent to 70 percent, and are considered among the most efficient technologies on the market.
A $6.5 million penguin exhibit at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle will use such a system when it opens next year. Zoo officials estimate that over the 20-year life of the exhibit, the electricity they will save would be enough to power 43 homes for a year.
With energy costs on the rise, Gerard Maloney, who has been installing geothermal systems for 10 years, says he expects a boom in business this year from residential customers. "It seems like the floodgates have opened," he said. "When (gasoline) hit $4.50 a gallon, the phone started ringing off the hook."
Scott Thomsen, Seattle City Light spokesman, said news of the penguin exhibit sparked interest. The technology may allow residential users to qualify for an incentive payment or rebate, he said, although a formal incentive program hasn't been developed yet because the technology is not widespread.
Puget Sound Energy provides incentives for solar panels, but because of a lack of interest, does not offer them for geothermal heat. In Snohomish County, the Public Utility District is offering a two-day geothermal workshop Aug. 11 and 12 in Everett and will offer incentives for users looking to make the switch.