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Steamed About Energy

The geothermal heat pump industry also is pushing for a bill introduced by Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, that would extend business tax credits to the pump systems.

“Bart believes more businesses would choose this technology if it were more affordable, so his bill expands existing energy tax credits to geothermal heat pumps,” wrote Gordon’s press secretary, Julie Eubank, in an e-mail.

John Kelly, the Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium’s executive director, said his group has focused on Members of Congressional committees with tax-writing authority: the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees.

“We’re supportive of having geothermal heat pumps on a level playing field with the other renewable energies,” Kelly said. “It’s important to have geothermal heat pumps included explicitly so that people understand the tax credits do apply.”

Scott Segal, an energy lobbyist with Bracewell & Giuliani, who represents ClimateMaster, said wind and solar alternatives often overshadow geothermal. “Solar doesn’t work when the sun doesn’t shine, and wind doesn’t work when the wind doesn’t blow, but geothermal heat pumps work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” he said.

It’s not just the pump industry that’s pushing for the measures, either.

Kevin McCray, executive director of the National Ground Water Association, said tax or other incentives for geothermal heat pumps would be a boon to his members, who construct wells and have the technology to dig the bore holes required for the pumps.

“That’s why we’ve been supportive of legislation that would increase the use of that technology,” he said. McCray’s group has been working with lobbyist Cartier Esham of Dutko Worldwide to push the issue on Capitol Hill.

James Bose, executive director of the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association, said the pumps are “by far the No. 1 energy conserving technology we have in this country and around the world,” adding that they probably save more energy than all other energy alternatives combined.

It’s not just the manufacturers who wax poetic about the systems. Technical experts also agree that geothermal heat pumps come with many advantages. “What Dan says is generally highly credible,” said Harvey Sachs, director of the buildings program at the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, referring to ClimateMaster’s Ellis. “He’s an advocate, he believes in it. He’s betting his career on it.”

But, Sachs added: “It is not a panacea. There is no technology that is a panacea.” On the downside, for example, it costs about double to install a geothermal heat pump system than a traditional one.

That high initial cost pays for itself in regions with cold winters like New England, Sachs said. But in areas such as Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where temperatures remain more constant throughout the year, it’s harder to justify the cost, he said. “The payback on heating and cooling is not that great.”

Ellis acknowledged the hurdles, particularly those in coming late to the lobbying scene. “Our biggest problem is most people aren’t aware of it,” he said. “We’re an underground technology, pun intended. We got in late, but I’m optimistic that we will somehow prevail.”

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