Wyandotte Turns Up the Heat

The downriver community embraces geothermal energy
Illustration by Michael Byers

Wyandotte prides itself as a down-to-earth, pioneering city, having created its own electrical utility in 1892. The modern Wyandotte now finds itself literally down to earth — drilling about 400 feet deep to capture geothermal energy beneath its streets.

No, it’s not the scalding geothermal power that bubbles up between hot rocks. Rather, Wyandotte has teamed with private business to circulate water through pipes buried where temperatures are about 55 degrees all year. The water carries heat to machinery that converts the 55 degrees to a comfy 72 degrees or more. Homeowners can drive the system in reverse for summer cooling.

“The more we looked at it, the more we thought, ‘Wow, we should do this,’ ” says Melanie McCoy, general manager of Wyandotte Municipal Services. “It seemed like the right thing to do.”

Wyandotte already operates its own electrical power plants and decided to add geothermal by partnering with business.

“Wyandotte is the first city we signed up,” says Jim Moran, president of Advanced Energy Group, an Ann Arbor company involved in the joint venture. “In Wyandotte, we’re doing [heating and cooling] a new-housing condo complex on the river. And we’re doing a number of old historic buildings in the center of town — the library and museum. Those are very old buildings and energy wasters. They have old equipment that needs to be changed out. It’ll be a big energy savings for the city.”

The city also has a grant to refurbish or build more than 40 homes in a neighborhood-stabilization program, and those will have geothermal heating. “We still get people who ask us, ‘Are you going to drill down to the core of the Earth?’” Moran says. “Some pretty intelligent people don’t know what geothermal is. But it’s becoming better known every day.

“It’s taking energy out of the Earth, but it’s still a [taxable] power company. On the $20-million first phase, we’re going to be paying Wyandotte $450,000 a year in new property taxes. When we’re done in 10 years, we’ll be paying $4 million a year in property taxes and be the second-biggest taxpayer in Wyandotte after BASF.”

Jim Hardin, a geothermal expert, says a number of other cities are considering geothermal systems, including two in New York. “And they’re using Wyandotte as their model,” says Hardin, vice president of engineering for Hardin Geothermal, a major player in the Wyandotte venture.

“Not many know it, but Wyandotte was one of the first cities in America to have an electric utility back in the 1800s. And one of the first cities in Michigan to put in a cable service; the city utility did that. So they’re kind of stepping out in front. That’s why when I talk about them around the state, other cities have a lot of respect for Wyandotte and the way it’s managed. It’s a well-managed town.”

Hardin adds: “The ultimate goal is to have the town completely geothermal, from one end to the other [over 10 to 15 years].” Signing up for the new service will be voluntary. But interest should be high, because savings can be substantial. Homeowners using geothermal have utility bills 25- to 70-percent lower than traditional heating and air-conditioning systems, according to data collected by the Geothermal Exchange Organization, a nonprofit trade group. Plus, geothermal is said to help reduce pollutants in the air.

Heating and cooling with geothermal typically saves up to 40 percent of energy use in homes and up to 25 percent in non-residential buildings, according to a 2004 report by the Federal Energy Management Program. The downside? For homeowners, installing a geothermal system can cost several times that of a traditional furnace and air conditioner. But costs are returned in energy savings in five to 10 years, the U.S. Department of Energy reports. A homeowner may also qualify for a 30-percent federal tax credit on the price of the required equipment.

Meanwhile, Michigan could do more to promote geothermal, says state Rep. Kim Meltzer, R-Macomb Township. She proposes a 30-percent geothermal credit on 2010 state income taxes, saying, “We should put our money where our mouth is” on geothermal. Worldwide, geothermal is hot, so to speak. Between 1995 and 2007, the megawatts generated by geothermal heat pumps grew from 1,900 to 35,000, says Matt Roney, a researcher at Earth Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., group that promotes a sustainable future. The numbers translate to a 1,700-percent increase.

McCoy, the municipal services chief, says the Wyandotte project is a public-private partnership with Hardin Geothermal picking up much of the tab for the outside work. Residents and businesses that hook up to the system will pay an energy tab that, judging from studies, will be substantially less than their current bills.

Consumers don’t necessarily need a public utility to tap geothermal energy. They can install their own stand-alone system, which has been done by hundreds of thousands of homeowners, schools, and businesses around the world.

For McCoy, having a city geothermal utility is part of Wyandotte’s can-do streak:

“It is an independence that runs very, very deep in the city,” she says. “It’s really neat, because we get challenged every time something new comes out in the news. People ask, ‘Why wasn’t Wyandotte first?’”