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North Hempstead lowers fees on geothermal systems

Town of North Hempstead Supervisor Judi Bosworth inspects

Town of North Hempstead Supervisor Judi Bosworth inspects the components of a geothermal heating system at the Yes We Can Community Center in New Cassel, Thursday, May 22, 2014. Credit: Steve Pfost

North Hempstead has made it cheaper to install geothermal heat pumps, the green but often expensive alternative energy.

Residents seeking to install the systems that can cost more than $20,000 had to previously pay up to $700 in plumbing fees. That is now a $100 flat fee that covers the cost of review and inspection.

"We're trying to incentivize these things," said Frances Reid, the town's chief sustainability officer. Reid said that in each of the past three years, two or three have been installed in town, and one homeowner urged her to reconsider the fees.

The system, for homes and commercial properties, relies on the ground's constant temperature of 55 degrees as an exchange medium to heat and cool structures.

The town defines it as a system that transfers heat between the ground and a structure's heating and cooling systems, in which a nontoxic liquid runs through a closed system of buried pipes or tubing. The town forbids open-looped systems that can tap into Long Island's aquifers.

In the winter, heat energy can be taken from the ground and added to the building, and in the summer that process is reversed.

North Hempstead Supervisor Judi Bosworth said the town is trying to install "a process where people are encouraged to apply for permits to have the system," which could lead to cost-savings within 10 years, she said.

Reid said the systems have gained in popularity, with renewed interest recently from homeowners. The town has a system at its Yes We Can Community Center in New Cassel. It taps into 60 wells below its gymnasium and parking lot.

Proponents encourage residents to install the systems in place of regular air conditioning and heating. The result is a lower carbon footprint, and often initially a higher electricity bill, but that is offset eventually by reduced utility costs, experts said.

Incentives must exist to keep the geothermal industry competitive, said John Kelly, manager of operations for Geothermal Exchange Organization, a Washington, D.C.,-based trade association. The withering housing market has hindered the systems' rise, Kelly said.

"In the last few years, the entire housing market has suffered from the economic downturn, and the installation of geothermal heat pumps have been flat; people aren't building many new houses."

New York State Energy Research and Development Authority offers low-interest loans depending on the project, and there are federal rebates of up to 30 percent to cover costs.

One way to encourage green-friendly building is for banks to offer low-interest mortgage rates, said Jefferson Tester, director of the Cornell Energy Institute. "Codes frequently don't look at lifetime life cycle costs of a house as much as they could," he said.

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