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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Untapped Energy Source

Air Date: Week of

New thinking has emerged on using the earth’s own heat. Experts say geothermal systems can be installed just about anywhere since the earth is about 55 or so degrees near the top of its crust. Heat pumps run by electric motors can tap this non- polluting and virtually inexhaustible supply of energy and use it to heat and cool buildings just about anywhere, including the heart of Manhattan. Neal Rauch reports from the east side of Central Park.


CURWOOD: Most of us associate geothermal energy with those places where heat from underground swells into hot springs. Old Faithful, the geyser in Yellowstone National Park, is probably the best example, but unless you live next door to a geyser, or you've visited Iceland, with its many geothermal plants, you probably haven't thought about using the Earth's latent heat as an energy source. Think again. Experts say, geothermal systems can be installed just about anywhere, since the Earth's heat lies not far from the surface. Heat pumps can tap this non-polluting and virtually inexhaustible supply of energy and use it to heat and cool buildings even in the heart of Manhattan. Neal Rauch reports from the east side of Central Park.

RAUCH: East 64th Street, off Central Park, is an elite block, to say the least. The inhabitants of its marble-and-limestone mansions include fashion designer Gianni Versace, the Wildenstein Art Gallery, Seagram's CEO Edgar Bromfman, and Ivana Trump. They will all soon get a new neighbor, a five-story building, where environmental and other foundations will be housed. Its owner, labor lawyer and mediator Theodore Kheel, says it'll be the first building in Manhattan to be heated and cooled by geothermal energy.

KHEEL; Our aim is to provide the foundations in Foundation House with an atmosphere that is environmentally up-to-date, with the latest technologies, to make it environmentally correct.

[Construction sounds]

RAUCH: A few workers are preparing the site for construction of the new building. At opposite ends of the lot are a couple of rust-colored pipes sticking up about 2 feet from the ground, with pink tops on them. They don't look like much, but well-digger John Barnes, of Geothermal and Water Resources, Incorporated, says they cap the deepest holes in Manhattan.

BARNES: These holes are drilled to over the depth, in relationship to the height, of the World Trade Center. So when you ride over a bridge and you see the Empire State Building, we're down further than that.

RAUCH: Water circulating in these 1500-foot wells will be bringing heat to and from Foundation House. The bedrock under Manhattan stores heat from the sun absorbed at the surface. The rock maintains a steady temperature of about 56 degrees. When water in the wells passes through the rock, it brings some of that heat with it. Once in the building, a heat pump uses this energy to warm the building and make hot tap water. By reversing the process, the building can be cooled during the summer, by removing heat and sending it into the ground. It's much like your refrigerator.

BARNES; What it's doing, it's taking that heat out of the box, of the refrigerator, and blowing it out into your room. Well, this is much the same thing.

RAUCH: The Foundation House unit was designed by Carl Orio, a leading designer in the field, and president of Water and Energy Systems Corporation in New Hampshire.

ORIO: I'm taking a lot of low-temperature energy, and I'm squeezing it and I'm making a smaller amount of high-temperature, same amount of energy. So, one of the reasons...

RAUCH: In a recent workshop, Carl Orio brought together the various building trades.

ORIO: Over the years geothermal heat pumps have always been perceived, the big advantage is their low operating costs, and certainly they are. I don't think there's anything on the market that's lower cost in heating, air conditioning, and making domestic hot water. Now today...

RAUCH: Carl Orio admits that it costs more to install a geothermal system. The Foundation House wells cost $100,000. But when all is said and done, it is still far more economical than conventional heating and air conditioning models.

ORIO: For example, not in the building, there's a smoke stack, not in the building is something burning fuels. There's not a boiler, not in the building or on its rooftop are cooling powers, or outdoor condensers. The building's become aesthetically very clean. All of those are savings.

RAUCH: But it's in operational costs where the real savings come in. There are no fuel bills and less maintenance. Foundation House expects to break even in just 3 years. Standing above his recently dug wells, John Barnes says this could mean windfalls, here, and at many other sites around the country.

BARNES: One of the biggest Army forts, down in Louisiana, has just done this, installed, and they're expected to save $25,000,000 in heating costs for the United States government.

RAUCH: And since nothing is burned, this renewable energy source causes no pollution, except from the electricity required to operate the pumps. Geothermal energy is not new. The basic technology goes back to the 1920's, though modern equipment is much smaller and more efficient, making it more economical. Today, thousands of homes and businesses across North America use geothermal systems. Although geothermal energy is new to Manhattan, designer Carl Oreo says the technology doesn't have to be limited to new, modest-size buildings like Foundation House.

ORIO: Could we do the World Trade Center? The answer is, yes.

RAUCH: There are currently no plans to retrofit the Twin Towers, but publicity from his work on Foundation House has led to several other possible projects in Manhattan. Owner Theodore Kheel says that was exactly what he was hoping for.

KHEEL: It is a demonstration of a commitment to sustainable development, and so we said, let's give it a try.

RAUCH: Foundation House is scheduled to be completed in the summer of 1998. For Living on Earth, I'm Neal Rauch, in New York.



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