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One Barn, Three Utilities and Geothermal SuccessPrint

Clean Energy | September 23, 2013 | By Jim Dulzo

*A version of this blog post appeared first on the Clean Energy Now website on Sept. 18, 2013

Traverse City’s historic Cathedral Barn is installing an efficient, geothermal heating and cooling system, due to a unique collaboration among three utilities, a park agency, citizen groups and foundations. (Photo by Jim Dulzo/MLUI)
Traverse City’s historic Cathedral Barn is installing an efficient, geothermal heating and cooling system, due to a unique collaboration among three utilities, a park agency, citizen groups and foundations. (Photo by Jim Dulzo/MLUI)

TRAVERSE CITY — It was a setting guaranteed to raise a smile: a squinty-bright sun, an electric-blue sky, rolling green hills, a verdant community garden and a big, immaculately restored old barn.

But the folks who gathered last week at the Historic Barns Park were grinning for a different reason: Completion of the first phase of a geothermal heating and cooling system that will keep the park’s iconic Cathedral Barn comfortable year-round, save money for the local agency that manages it and help reduce power plant emissions by using less electricity and natural gas.

The very name of that agency—the City of Traverse City and Charter Township of Garfield Recreational Authority—indicates how complicated it must have been to put this good deal together.

It all started when Deb McKeon, then head of North Sky, a local nonprofit, now with the Council of Michigan Foundations, and a prime mover of the park and barn restoration project, touted the idea with officials from several local utilities.

Geothermal would cost about $73,000 — and neither the agency nor the regional foundation leading the restoration fundraising had that kind of money.

Tony Anderson, director of Cherryland Electric Co-op, was most enthusiastic. He liked the idea of helping out the barn — a gorgeous, 5,000-square-foot monster with a towering vaulted ceiling — which is now undergoing a $670,000 restoration.

Anderson, who noted at the gathering that he grew up in South Dakota, where an uncle had a really cool barn, said he wanted Cherryland to contribute, but couldn’t do it unless the effort could count toward the co-op’s state energy optimization mandate, which requires utilities to reduce energy demand by helping customers become more efficient —something a geothermal system does.

There was one slight problem, though: the park doesn’t get its power from Cherryland. It’s a Consumers Energy customer.

Happily, Anderson persuaded the Michigan Public Service Commission to allow it to earn optimization credits for the project, even though it was outside their market. He did that by pointing out to the commission that the park is an educational project serving customers from all three area electric utilities: Cherryland, Consumers and Traverse City Light & Power.

MPSC quickly said yes.

Then the real fun began: With $22,000 in hand from Cherryland, it was time to raise the remainder of the money. Consumers, the state’s second-largest electric utility, contributed $40,000; TCL&P chipped in $2,000. The recreational authority covered the balance.

Now the project’s 16 loops of piping, each 300 feet long, are in place and ready to pump earth-temperature (56 degrees) water into the barn’s soon-to-be installed heating and cooling equipment at 40 gallons a minute.

Here’s a bonus: The geothermal pipes are buried below the park’s verdant community garden. So the system is not only invisible, it’s beautiful.

Indeed, there was a lot to smile about yesterday: more energy efficiency, multi-utility teamwork, local governments and citizen groups working together, local food, recycled buildings—a true-blue, Kumbaya moment.

Rachel Johnson, Cherryland’s grassroots advocate, said the three utilities might collaborate again when another, similarly public-spirited project surfaces.

Surprisingly, she added that geothermal is really catching on with her co-op’s members.

“It’s growing a lot,” Johnson said. “That’s because our service area has a lot of wet, sandy soil, which is very conducive to geothermal working well. And, for people who like renewable energy, this can be easier to do than wind power or even solar, because you don’t need the kind of permitting those other sources can require.”

Cherryland is encouraging that trend by adding a second, additional efficiency rebate dedicated to geothermal systems.

And the Historic Barns Park isn’t done with clean energy, either. The agency and its boosters are discussing adding an “energy park” to the 56-acre complex, which is well on its way to offering educational horticulture and agriculture displays, fine arts programs, outdoor recreation and, in the big barn, concerts and other special public and private events.

Along with the barn’s geothermal system, which could heat and cool five houses if it wasn’t hooked up to a big barn, could be expanded to other existing and envisioned buildings nearby. The park might add educational displays of working solar and wind power systems, too.

“My sincere hope is that the energy park at the barn happens,” Johnson said. “But it will only happen if all of the utilities get involved.”

Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s senior energy policy adviser. Reach him at jimdulzo@mlui.org.