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Geothermal energy is slowly gaining steam in homes

CBS MoneyWatch

Originally posted: March 1, 2018

Steve Smith has had a rough few years. The Greenville, Illinois, resident has been in business for himself since 1996, installing heating and cooling systems. Ten years later, he bought a manufacturer. At the end of 2016, he had more than 120 employees and relationships with hundreds of vendors, doing work across all 50 states and in Canada.

But starting in 2016, his business shrunk by nearly half.

“2017 hit and it was a cliff for us,” Smith said. His sales dropped by half, he said, adding that by the end of last year, he had just 76 workers.

“My wife knows their kids’ names, how old they are,” he said. “To lay people off, it was just wrenching.”

Smith’s company, Enertech Global, deals with one particular type of clean energy: Geothermal, which uses the earth’s natural temperature to heat and cool buildings. Its trouble started when, just over two years ago, Congress let expire a tax credit for a number of lesser-known renewable energies, including geothermal, in what some describe as a drafting error.

After two years of diligent lobbying from Smith and his fellow business owners, lawmakers reinstated the credit last month, in the early-morning hours of Feb. 9.

Hours later, Smith’s phone started ringing with orders. “We’re already talking about bringing back 25 percent of the workforce we laid off,” Smith said. “We want to be back to our initial size by next year.”

Geothermal heat and energy, often called “the forgotten renewable,” are widely used elsewhere in the world, with China, Sweden and New Zealand making use of geothermal heat and power. Iceland, with its abundant hot springs and volcanoes, gets a quarter of its electricity from geothermal power.

Geothermal energy doesn’t create emissions, unlike fossil fuels. Because it uses heat radiating from the earth’s core, it’s considered renewable, with a supply whose lifetime is equal to the Earth’s.

But in the U.S., geothermal remains little-known.

“Solar and wind have much better marketing,” said Maria Richards, who runs the geothermal laboratory at Southern Methodist University. “You can see the sun in your face, and the wind in your hair, but unless you go to Yellowstone or Hot Springs, Arkansas, you can’t see the heat that’s in the ground.” READ MORE