Better Life: Ohio Retiree Saves Neighbors Money on Energy, Reduces Pollution, Creates US Jobs

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With his pressed Oxford shirt and his white hair neatly combed, Darrel Cubbison, a retired member services manager at Guernsey-Muskingum Electric Cooperative in Southeastern Ohio, doesn’t look like much of a revolutionary.

Darrel Cubbison promotes energy-saving ground-source heat pumps among his rural Ohio neighbors

Still, he promotes a radical platform among his rural neighbors. Do as he’s done, he says as they discuss high heating and cooling bills. You’ll slash your energy costs, reduce air pollution almost in half, create jobs. And, heck, you’ll even cut the home maintenance you’re stuck performing every month.

That’s a kind of radicalism I get behind 100 percent!

Cubbison’s cause, more precisely, is the ground-source heat pump, the most amazing heating and cooling technology you’ve probably never heard of: “I’m a great believer in geothermal,” says Cubbison, using the technology’s other name. According to researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), GSHP systems can save the average home or building owner 45 percent on energy costs. Each unit of energy pumped into a GSHP system yields 3.5 units more, these researchers note.

That’s a 350 percent return on an energy investment.

How do GSHP systems accomplish these miracles? I’m not an engineer, so I’ll just give you the basics. (For more technical information, check out this April 21st webcast offered free by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers: “Ground Source Heat Pump Systems—Putting the Earth to Work for You.”)

To perform their magic, GSHPs employ a device known as a heat exchanger, instead of a furnace, air-source heat pump and/or air conditioning unit. That heat exchanger, located inside a home or commercial building, connects to a network of underground, environmentally benign, fluid-filled pipes. Because the temperature just a few feet below the earth’s surface is relatively constant—between about 45 and 70 degrees, depending upon where you live—when the fluid in the pipes circulates through the heat exchanger, it absorbs a building’s heat in the summer, transferring it outdoors. In winter, the system imports the ground’s heat inside. Somehow, you get free hot water with that, too. (I’ve mentioned I’m not an engineer, right?)

Cubbison “got interested in geothermal several years ago,” he says, “when we at Guernsey-Muskingum were trying to save our members money, while still having all the comforts of a conventional heating and cooling system.” After doing a bit of research, 14 years ago he and his wife installed a GSHP system at their 2200-square-foot home in New Concord. That first summer, their cooling bill totaled $69. Not for a month, mind you. But for the whole air-conditioning season. (Adjusted for inflation, that’s less than $98 today.) And he’s had to perform virtually no maintenance on the system.

Up front, GSHP systems will cost you more. Cubbison is the first to tell his neighbors that. But the over the long haul, GSHPs are the least expensive HVAC systems around, according to ORNL’s Building Technologies Research and Integration Center. That’s probably one reason more than 25 of Cubbison’s neighbors in a 2.5 square-mile rural area have switched to GSHPs. “When we got our system, it took less than seven years to pay itself back,” Cubbison notes. “But the cost of other fuels has gone up. So now you’ll get your payback sooner.” That’s especially true now: The federal government offers a 30 percent credit for Energy Star-certified GSHP systems installed before 2017, and many state and local incentives are available, too.

The savings ground-source heat pumps offer individual building owners can accrue to the nation, as well. If every single-family home in the US ran on a GSHP, we’d save about 4 percent of the energy we use as a nation—4 percent of all the energy we use as a nation, not just the energy we use for buildings. And if every single-family home in the US ran on a GSHP, each year, homeowners and renters would  have 52 billion extra dollars in their pockets and bank accounts. We’d eliminate the amount of air pollution 48 million cars create annually.

The more of us who switch to GSHPs, the more we cut energy prices because reducing demand reduces cost. It also reduces the number of power plants we need to build and operate, lowering energy prices further. The GSHP revolution will be good for the nation’s economy in other ways, too. If only 15 percent of the nation’s building stock converted from conventional HVAC systems to GSHPs, we’d add 100,000 new jobs that can’t be shipped overseas.

And in this list of positives, did I mention that “pretty much the whole industry is based in the US,” says Dan Ellis, President and CEO of ClimateMaster, a GSHP manufacturer based in Oklahoma City? His company has added 300 new jobs there since 2006, despite the economic crisis and the decline in housing starts. “Not only are 98 percent of the manufacturers based in the US,” he says, “but 90-plus percent of our suppliers are based here, too.”

Not bad for a revolutionary technology almost no one has ever heard of.

Darrel Cubbison is working on that.