County debates geothermal heating, cooling systems
BY Sarah smith
Regulation and green technology are at loggerheads as Hubbard County determines whether it should oversee geothermal heating and cooling systems, especially those that drain into area lakes.
A public hearing is set for July 16 at 1 p.m. in the county boardroom.
The debate has raged since a Garfield Lake couple sought a variance for their system this spring after the Environmental Services Office received a complaint about a leak causing erosion on their lot.
The system had malfunctioned last winter and was temporarily awaiting a fix when neighbors complained water was draining from the system into the lake.
Their request for a variance opened a Pandora’s box, an onslaught from supporters and detractors.
Among the complaints is the excavation required to install a system. Geothermal systems can be closed or open, called a pump and dump.
Especially on lakeshore properties, the excavation itself can violate shoreland ordinances and lead to more erosion into a lake.
DNR Fisheries supervisor Doug Kingsley voiced concern about the amount of groundwater such systems appropriate from already strained aquifers, and how they affect surface waters.
The county’s ordinance, Section 513 of the Shoreland Management code, is under scrutiny as the county recommends shelving it or sharpening its teeth.
“We don’t have enough information to base an ordinance on,” said Hubbard County board member Kathy Grell, who also sits on the county’s Planning Commission.
That body urged scrapping Sec. 513 altogether, which the Hubbard County board upheld Tuesday. That action led to the scheduling of the July 16 public meeting.
But it is the discharge of the pump and dump systems that may be causing the most heartburn.
Warm water is discharged into a lake or drainage system. The make-up of particulates in that water is largely unknown. The cumulative effect of several systems discharging into a lake could be monumental, Kingsley cautioned.
“I don’t want to create something that’s a monster,” Grell told fellow board members.
It is that fear of the unknown driving the push to leave regulation to the state.
And efforts are underway at that level to regulate the technology.
Geothermal systems don’t burn fossil fuels, so they are popular with environmentalists.
They are expensive to install but pay for themselves over their lifetime, generally 25 years.
“These systems aren’t as green as you’re led to believe,” Kingsley said. He worries about ice depths near a discharging system in the winter, when warm water could compromise lake ice and be a liability.
“Sun and wind could change (a lake’s) temperature more than one of these heat pumps,” countered Jeff Peterson, an officer with the Minnesota Geothermal Heat Pump Association.
County officials don’t want to squelch the developing technology, but the cumulative effect of many systems is worrisome, like having several bad septic systems on the same lake.
“I don’t like walking away from it and having no regulation,” commissioner Greg Larson said.
County Attorney Don Dearstyne agreed.
“If you allow those systems to drain into the lake we’re going to get complaints without the ability to enforce them,” he said.
Bryan Kerby of Northwoods Log Homes, said, “Right now we’re the only ones out there doing this,” speaking of regulating the geothermal systems. “You’re going to push people into doing it in less environmentally sound” ways.
Dearstyne said if the only concern is erosion, the county has ways of enforcing that issue without having an ordinance dealing with geothermal systems.
Grell suggested the county may want to look at standards for discharging into a lake.
“That’s what these systems are; an unattended hose,” commissioner Matt Dotta said.
County officials have contacted other state agencies and have been told statewide regulation is in the works, just years in the future.
Environmental Services Officer Eric Buitenwerf said existing erosion regulations may not have the teeth to regulate discharge into a lake. But septic system rules do, requiring discharge into a septic system or French drain.
Grell suggested regulating out of ignorance isn’t the approach.
“I don’t know what I’m regulating,” she said. “We don’t regulate where you put a propane gas tank in.”