Malcolm Gladwell tells us that geothermal energy isn’t as exotic as we think. His own father recently started using geothermal energy to heat and cool his home. The conversion allowed him to throw away his old oil-fueled furnace — despite living in chilly Ontario.
Like Gladwell, I had assumed that geothermal was useful only in unusual circumstances. Say, if you happened to live in a volcanically active region, or near a body of water with a steep thermocline. It turns out all you need is a decently sized back yard.
Six feet down, the earth stays a constant and comfortable temperature — between 50° and 60° all year round. By burying some water pipes and then running the fluid through a heat exchanger, you can produce ambient air that warms you in the winter and cools you in the summer.
It’s a little more complicated than that. Because humans like it around 70° in the winter, a compressor is needed to bring the temperature of the air up a bit. But the net energy and cost savings are still considerable.
And the system has ancillary benefits. The Gladwells had never had air conditioning before, even though Ontario can suffer through the same summer heat waves as the rest of the North America. And the air quality in the house has improved, because the furnace is no longer sucking up oxygen.
Most remarkable, perhaps, is how simple it is tap geothermal energy:
I think it is also worth noting how absurdly low-tech the system is. It is pvc pipes and a compressor. My father lives in Ontario, where the winters can be vicious, and has thrown out his furnace! …One of the frustrating things about the current discussion over our dependence on imported oil is the persistent notion that real solutions will require some future technological breakthrough. I think we have a lot of the answers. We just haven’t made consumers and public officials aware of them.