Part of Klamath Falls sits over an aquifer that percolates hot water through volcanic rock close enough to the surface to be tapped for heating homes and businesses.

Geothermal means “heat from the earth.” That is, heat generated by the earth’s core that in rare instances, allows for water to flow deep into the crust and emerge warm enough at the surface to be tapped for direct-use geothermal.

This should not be confused with the so-called “geothermal” that the heating and cooling industry pirated a decade or so ago. What they call geothermal is actually heat pump technology. Heat pumps exploit the difference in temperature between air and the insulative heat retention properties of water and soil. It didn’t sound renewable enough, so they incorrectly stole the label for their own marketing. This is something that governments like Klamath Falls should have fought, or at least countered with more truthful propaganda.

There are over 400 private wells in Klamath Falls dipping into the hot water aquifer to heat properties for, essentially, free. It’s a good thing that should be lauded well beyond the attention that solar and wind receive. The latter technologies are far from sustainable because they rely on high tech production methods that utilize rare earth materials that are obtainable only in China. And so goes the jobs.

Higher governments have a hard-on for generating electricity with geothermal and shower such projects with government funding. However, the temperatures must be high enough to boil water to generate steam and there are so few sites where this can occur, there are hardly any successful projects continuously in operation.

According to the federal Department of Energy, 35% of energy in the United States is used to heat homes and domestic hot water. Most of that energy is supplied by fossil fuels. You’d think a country with such a commitment to ween itself off of fuel imports would be jumping on the direct use geothermal resource that could offset that 35% (and drive gas prices down).

But they don’t. Part of the reason, is the lack of appropriate action by cities like Klamath Falls.

The homeowners who use geothermal don’t receive a single incentive from government for using the resource. But if they were to install solar panels, they would receive loans, grants, and tax abatements. The City of Klamath Falls operates against these private systems with prejudice and impunity.

Direct use geothermal typically dips a loop of steel pipe into a well were water is circulated. Radiators convert the hot water to heat in the home. Domestic water is also piped through the hot water in the well and comes up consistently hot. These homeowners rely on City water to pressurize the closed loop system and provide the source for the domestic hot water.

The problem is nearly all the pipes in the ground are black steel. This steel corrodes very easily and when it leaks, the City continues to bill the homeowner for the water and sewer as a percentage as if it is all being treated as wastewater. By the time a homeowner discovers there is a leak, they are obligated to pay for water and sewer service that was never used. The City won’t provide fair compensation for the loss, often denying it entirely.

Some homeowners, especially those with busy lives working for a living to pay their taxes wait for bills to add up until they are a hundred dollars or so before paying. Even with a long history of always paying what is due, the City shuts off the water for late payment, then charges a hefty reconnection fee. When a system is shut off, it amplifies the corrosion problem, and when the water is turned back on the surge can break the pipes in the system. So if the City actually cared about supporting geothermal users, they would not engage in such draconian practices.

Another root of the problem is the lack of access to better materials. The City runs its own geothermal loop to heat sidewalks and heat government buildings. Being a large entity, it warehouses its own, better materials that resist corrosion far longer. These materials are not available to the general public.

The plumbing and well specialists that work on geothermal don’t stock alternatives to black pipe, nor do their local suppliers. Why would they? It is to their advantage to sell more pipe and additional services by letting obsolete systems corrode. This begs the question…if a rail car tanker can safely carry caustic substances such as hydrochloric acid in steel tanks lined with special coatings, why is it that our local government has failed to step in with similar solutions? They could overstock supplies of alternatives as basic as red brass or stainless steel pipe for the geothermal homes to purchase at a discount, all funded with blanket federal loans and grants for alternative energy that are available only to other government entities.

One last point. The City thinks it is doing everyone a great favor by operating its own geothermal loop to which it says others can connect to. So why aren’t private building owners doing so? Because of the City’s horribly convoluted formula that makes it cost more to use geothermal than standard heating and cooling systems that run on electricity and natural gas.

The City charges 80% of the prevailing rate per BTU for natural gas. OK, so what the hell does that have to do with the cost of operating the system? Where did the 80% come from. The County offices wanted to be green, so they subscribed to the City’s loop, but many officials feel the cost is higher than it would be if they used natural gas instead of geothermal. There’s no way to know for sure the way the City makes up the charge. A local church once connected, then disconnected with they received a bill higher than the fee they were paying to heat with natural gas.

Wouldn’t it be great if the City used geothermal as an incentive for investment and business relocation? Anyone that moved near the loop could receive free heat! It would be easy to do if the City looked at this as a cooperative service utility rather than a lever to pay its operational costs while heating its own buildings for free at the expense of the taxpayers and the suckers that the City convinced to connect to their loop.