© 2024 WEMU
Serving Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, MI
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Issues of the Environment: Ann Arbor pushing to take Bryant neighborhood geothermal

Missy Stults
Missy Stults
Missy Stults


  • As Ann Arbor pushes to reach the ambitious goal of “a just transition to community-wide carbon neutrality by 2030”, alternative methods for home heating and cooling, particularly solar and geothermal, will become increasingly important.
  • Geothermal home heating and cooling can cut energy costs and environmental impact by circulating an anti-freeze/water solution through buried tubing called a “loop field” or “ground array”. Four feet underground the soil stays consistently between 45 and 75 degrees F. The tubing transfers heat between the soil and home.
  • Geothermal heating is incredibly environmentally friendly because there is no combustion, and subsequently no exhaust byproducts are generated. The heat-pump that operates the exchange uses very little energy, so the system can also lower home energy costs significantly. 
  • So long as the terrain is suitable for installation of the array, the main barrier to geothermal is the startup cost. According to Forbes, “the average low cost is $17,000, the average middle cost is $24,500, and the average high cost is $32,300.” (The average startup cost for a furnace and ductwork is about $7500.) There are some federal tax credits available for homeowners to offset the geothermal startup hurdle. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.forbes.com/home-improvement/hvac/geothermal-heating-cooling-systems-cost/)
  • Energy.gov reports that, “Nationally, low-income household spend a larger portion of their income on home energy costs (e.g., electricity, natural gas, and other home heating fuels) than other households spend. This measure is often referred to as a household’s “energy burden.” One recent study found that low-income households face an energy burden three times higher than other households.” (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2019/01/f58/WIP-Energy-Burden_final.pdf)
  • Ann Arbor’s A2Zero sustainability planisn’t just about environmental benchmarks; the city wants an equitable transition to net-zero that doesn’t leave out lower-income households. The Bryant neighborhood, which is already the focus of local sustainability projects, recently received federal grant for up to $588,000 to design a community geothermal heating and cooling system. The Ann Arbor project will be a looped geothermal system paired with efficiency improvements, rooftop solar, and battery storage that covers at least 75% of the heating and cooling load and eliminates energy burden for 262 low-income households, a local school, a community mental health service center, and the city’s public works facility. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.energy.gov/eere/geothermal/community-geothermal-heating-and-cooling-design-and-deployment)


David Fair: A new and innovative project is coming to Ann Arbor, and it's expected to further the city's goal of achieving carbon neutrality. I'm David Fair, and I'd like to welcome you to this week's edition of Issues of the Environment on 89 one WEMU. A nearly $600,000 federal grant is going to allow the city to design a geothermal heating and cooling system for the Bryant neighborhood. The underground system is expected to not only reduce emissions and improve air quality, but save on energy costs. Joining us to further explain the project is Missy Stults. Missy is Ann Arbor's Sustainability and Innovations manager. Always good to talk with you, Missy.

Missy Stults: Dave, always great to talk with you, too. And thanks for your interest in this project.

David Fair: Well, the grant money is going to pay for the design of a geothermal system that, when paired with other efficiencies, is expected to cover at least 75% of the heating and cooling load for 262 low-income households, a local school, a community mental health center, and the city's public works facility. Now, that's a major design project. Is $580,000 going to cover it?

Missy Stults: Yeah. Yeah, we should be good. So, we've got a great foundation to work from because of our existing work in the Bryant neighborhood, our collaboration with Community Action Network and the residents in Bryant, and we've actually been doing some energy assessments of households. We've done about 50 of them where we actually already know what their energy use looks like, what their appliances look like, opportunities for enhancement. So, we are starting at a sprint.

David Fair: So, what other efficiencies will be required to hit that anticipated 75% plus heating and cooling load target?

Missy Stults: Yeah, this is what's great about the assessments we've already done is that, in the Bryant neighborhood, for those who aren't familiar, there are 232 homes, and there really are only two styles of home. So, having 50 assessments done and only two styles of homes means we can extrapolate out for what the majority of the neighborhood actually needs. So, we know there's a lot of opportunity around insulation, weatherizing and air sealing. And so, those things help make sure that the core of the building, the homes, are as efficient as possible. And then, that way, when we transition over to renewable energies, like solar and geothermal, those energy goes further.

David Fair: What's the geothermal vision? Is it going to be a centralized location that then attaches to all of the households with underground tubing?

Missy Stults: I love the way you're thinking. That's right. So, let me first say that part of the grant is working with the community to actually design what the system would look like. So, we have a lot of options. We have a park that's right in the middle of the neighborhood. We've got the school that's kind of a big grassy knoll. We are the city, which means we have all the rights of way. And so, we have lots of options of where we could actually drill and do the boring for the geothermal system. So, we'll be working on getting energy use data, so we can figure out the right way to size that system, doing some test boring, and, of course, working with the public to understand where exactly we should be putting the majority of those boreholes. And then, you're right. It will be a centralized, most likely system with pipes out that serve all of the houses and those different commercial entities that you named before.

David Fair: Our Issues of the Environment conversation on geothermal heating and cooling in Ann Arbor neighborhood continues. It's the Bryant neighborhood. Our guest on 89 one WEMU is Ann Arbor Sustainability and Innovations manager Missy Stults. Now, on a geothermal system, what chemicals are used that are going to be pumped through those tubing and the loop field in order to heat and cool the homes?

Missy Stults: That's a good question. Now there are different designs and different chemicals that you would use based on those designs, so we don't know yet.

David Fair: But it does bring up the concern that if we're worried about underground oil and gas pipelines and the damage potentially can do, shouldn't we also be concerned about any chemical that is being pumped underground in this area?

Missy Stults: No, these are closed loop systems, right? So, there isn't leakage, and there are incredible environmental protections that we put in place to make sure that the boreholes are protected, that we don't have leaking. And this is one of the oldest technologies that we have. It is always important to ask these questions. It is always important to be intentional in our design, and we will adhere to the strictest environmental standards. But this is not a major concern.

David Fair: So, once the project is designed and ready for installation, I imagine a lot of earth is going to be moved throughout the Bryant neighborhood to get each participating household and facility attached. Are there any public health or environmental concerns in that process?

Missy Stults: No. Really, the largest disturbance that we see from district geothermal systems or geothermal in general is actually noise--the noise associated with the drilling itself. And so, that's where we're going to be working with the public as well to make sure that we determine when to drill, what the hours are, and make sure people are aware. We also want to coordinate it, so we don't have to drill as long, right? And if we have centralized bore. Well, that's actually probably easier because you're in one spot doing the majority of your drilling, which, again, could be a park space. So, minimized disturbance is certainly going to be one of the major criteria.

David Fair: We're talking with Missy Stults on 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment. She is Ann Arbor Sustainability and Innovations manager. Now, once designed and ready for installation, there is going to be a big bill. And have you ballparked costs or started to identify more funding sources for this project?

Missy Stults: Great question. So, what I don't think is really well-known about this project is it's what's called a down select. So, DOE selected 11 communities across the nation to do this design work. And then, they're going to take our designs, and they're going to select a handful to actually help fund implementation. So, we are now in that small list of communities that are eligible for potential funding support based on what comes out of our design work. So, part of the design that we're doing right now is not just figuring out the details of where we're drilling, how we're connecting, but it's also doing a rate analysis. What would it cost to have this geothermal utility up in motion? What would it look like if we got the grant from DOE to help implement it? So, we don't know yet because it sounds very much depend on the cost, very much dependent on the design that we go for. What I'm super excited about that is we are now going to be eligible for consideration for implementation funding from DOE.

David Fair: Does the project entirely away if you are not selected?

Missy Stults: Oh, I don't think we should say that. No, we've got to see what design comes out. We've got to see the costing. The city is, as you know, in a very intense conversation right now about how we sustainably heat our homes and businesses. And if this proves a viable model, I'm excited to see how we can get it off the ground. I hope that's what DOE is funding, because they're so impressed by the design and the community engagement. But even if not, we are committed. And as listeners may know, we have a goal of making the Bryant neighborhood America's first carbon neutral, existing neighborhood. This is an important step in that process. So, with or without DOE funding, we still have to figure out how to achieve that.

David Fair: The expenditure, wherever it is and however it is paid for, is expected to provide cost benefit as well. I know you can't talk in specifics as we're not that far along. Nonetheless, what evidence is there that this is truly going to be not only an environmental impact savings, but a cost savings?

Missy Stults: We have some models across the U.S., but we have a lot more abroad where district geothermal has been successfully deployed and achieved that cost savings. Right now, we're looking really closely at what's happening in Framingham, Massachusetts, where the community is working with Heat and Eversource to deploy this geothermal system. They're in groundbreaking right now. Their initial modeling and economics show the cost savings. We're going to see if that comes to fruition. They should be closing the ground up here shortly. So, we're going to start getting real time data in our kind of US marketplace. But I will say one of the goals of this project is to reduce energy burden, right? So, that's the amount of money that people pay as a percent of their income to be able to heat and cool their homes. And so, if we design a system that does not reduce energy burden, if it's cost prohibitive, we have to go back to the drawing board.

David Fair: What is your deadline? How long is this design process going to take?

Missy Stults: We have one year--one year from when they say start. And they haven't said start yet. They're making us all 11 communities start on the same day. We all get one full year. And that's the down select. So, probably sometime in the fall will be the official start.

David Fair: And for the areas that are selected for the grants or whenever the city decides to move forward, do you have a best guess as to when the physical project might start in Bryant neighborhood?

Missy Stults: Yeah, it's outside of the DOE funding, which if we are successful--when we are successful, let's go that way--in securing those resources that there will obviously be processes, federal processes, that we'll have to go through. So, it's hard to have that direct line. But if we decide to move forward, we've got a design, we've got the engineering team, we've got the firm that we're going to work with. It's just when the ground is ready, so months.

David Fair: That's a pretty quick process. And you seemed highly optimistic this is going to come to pass and will ultimately help Ann Arbor achieve its carbon neutrality goals.

Missy Stults: Dave, we got to be. I mean, I work in climate change. We got to have optimism, but optimism is nothing without action, right? And so, we are taking action to try to make this a viable project to make sure we achieve our goals, our aspirations that our community has that and that is what we're doing. So, this is not just optimism without some momentum behind it. This is the action that we need.

David Fair: Well, thank you so much for the time and the information today, Missy, and we will be following along.

Missy Stults: We can't wait. And everyone come on out, if anyone's interested, I'm just going to end by saying June 9th is an open house at the Bryant Community Center. We're delighted to announce. It just officially became our second resilience hub in the community. So, please come on out. We're going to be doing tours, and you can actually see a little bit about the neighborhood and hear more about the project.

David Fair: That is Missy Stults. She is Ann Arbor Sustainability and Innovations manager and our guest on Issues of the Environment. This weekly segment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. And for more information on today's topic, visit our website at WEMU dot org. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89.1 WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support.  Make your donation to WEMU todayto keep your community NPR station thriving.

Like 89.1 WEMU on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Contact WEMU News at734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
Related Content