Massachusetts ‘ natural gas companies face an existential crisis: they could be out of business by mid-century.
But now there’s a solution that could help save the businesses — and the climate —. Or, more precisely, just underfoot. It is geothermal energy, which is taking advantage of the world’s largest energy storage system: the earth itself.
The earth absorbs the solar energy of the sun and stores it underground as thermal energy which can be used for heating and cooling homes and companies.
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Developed in the late 1940s, the system removes furnaces, air-conditioners, and hot water heaters and is the most effective way to heat and cool a house. Although it is common in some countries, including Sweden, catching on here has been sluggish.
“The location has to be correct,” said architect Lisa Cunningham, who recently designed a private Brookline home renovation using geothermal energy for the gut. The best geothermal systems sites have plenty of space for installing horizontal pipes in relatively shallow ground. But because the Brookline lot is so small, the workers had to dig 500 feet deep for two holes.
“One thing that’s so great about having such a project right in the middle of a very tightly packed town, we’re showing people that it can be very price-effective,” said Cunningham, adding that the costs of building the system in the Brookline home “came in less than a comparable gas system.”
But that contains thousands of dollars in set to expire state rebates and federal tax incentives. Cost remains a major obstacle, said Zeyneb Magavi, co-managing director of the Home Energy Efficiency Team (HEET), a nonprofit environment based in Cambridge.
Magali, a clean-energy advocate, said she asked herself: Who is already digging holes and putting pipes in the ground, having big money and motivated to find a new business model?
Through her work, Magavi was familiar with the gas utilities — along with HEET co-managing director Audrey Schulman and the Gas Leaks Allies — helping gas companies recognize leaky pipes that are in need of repair.
Together, they found that fixing aging infrastructure would cost $9 billion over 20 years.
HEET commissioned a study to determine whether there was a way of making geothermal energy attractive to utilities and environmentalists alike.
Magavi has shown the results to senior officials with Eversource, New England’s biggest energy supply company.
It was an odd pitch but she felt “they also understood that we were always approaching this from a conversation based on data and facts, and they took us very seriously,” Magavi said. Eversource Senior Vice President and Chief Customer Officer Penni Conner said the idea is something the company likes.