Lac qui Parle County heats courthouse with geothermal

When it came time to replace the half-century-old heating and air conditioning system in Lac qui Parle County’s red-brick, Romanesque-style courthouse, built in 1899, there were two options. The county could put in a newer version of the same natural gas-powered system it already had, for around $600,000. Or it could install a more environmentally-friendly and cost-saving geothermal system for $950,000.

“The mechanical system was starting to show some signs of wear, where we had maintenance issues,” said county auditor, treasurer and coordinator Jake Sieg. “We knew we would have to do something with it. We looked at different options.” In a sparse, rural place like Lac qui Parle County, which hugs the western Minnesota border and is home to just 7,000 people, these kinds of big expenditures get an extra careful look.

The same methodical consideration takes place in small cities and counties around the state, yet many have found ways to move forward with green-energy projects, whether solar power in Royalton or biomass heat in Franklin. See our “Making Energy Local” project.

In the case of Lac qui Parle County, a $100,000 federal stimulus grant made the difference, pushing the needle toward geothermal. The new system went online a year ago and though it doesn’t provide all the building’s heat (a portion comes from two new gas boilers), Sieg estimates the county will save $16,000 annually in energy costs. He thinks the higher upfront expenditure will be repaid in seven to eight years. “Without the grant I think it would have been a lot harder decision to make,” Sieg said.

A geothermal system runs liquid through pipes underground to naturally cool or heat it to between 50 and 60 degrees. The liquid is then pumped back into the building, where it provides heat or air conditioning.

A liquid solution runs through these pipes, part of the geothermal system, into a well field where it is either cooled or heated, depending on the season. (Photo courtesy of Jake Sieg)

The system has made the courthouse, located in Madison, more efficient overall. Sieg said there are 15 separate pumps now, each assigned to a zone of the building, which allows for more tailored heating and cooling. “We noticed an immediate reduction in the utility bills,” he said.

Saving money was the number one concern, but reducing carbon was a factor, too. Plus, the geothermal system plugged fairly seamlessly into an existing duct system, minimizing disturbances to the historic courthouse.

“We had to do something and this was the best choice,” said Sieg. He said the county is happy to be less reliant on outside energy. “Natural gas… and electricity… are fuel sources that must be delivered by outside providers.  As such, the costs of those sources are subject to market pressures and other factors that create volatility.  The energy we get from the ground is free, and so the market volatility risk is eliminated.”

Sieg said the project has opened the door to looking at other new energy projects, possibly a solar installation at the courthouse for supplemental electricity. “It would be nice to get one of those fancy energy star certifications,” he said. “That is something we would be proud of.”

  • http://wlager Jennifer Vogel

    I contacted Jake Sieg in Lac qui Parle County to ask again about the payback estimate for the heating and cooling project there. He looked more deeply into the numbers and found that the original quoted payback time relates to an earlier cost estimate that turned out to be lower than the end cost of the project. The price tag increased due to unanticipated factors like asbestos abatement. At this point, he is unable to estimate the number of years it will take to earn back the price difference between a conventional system and the one the county installed (because it’s too new, because of increasing electricity prices and because it’s hard to know at this point exactly what a conventional system would have cost). It’s likely, but not entirely clear, that the payback will be longer than seven or eight years.
    “I agree with the reader,” Sieg said. “It will be interesting to see what the final numbers say in 10 or 20 years. The state chose our project in part because of the value of the data that will be collected regarding retrofit of historical buildings. Hopefully the data will help other entities make these decisions.”