West Warwick Geothermal Proposal: A First in U.S.

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

WEST WARWICK, R.I. — A proposed community geothermal heating and cooling system, which would be the first in the United States to supply energy to businesses and municipal buildings, is getting serious consideration locally.

The project already has been given the go-ahead by the Town Council for a temporary public-private partnership with a geothermal developer based in England and Sweden.

Most large alternative energy projects in Rhode Island and across the country rely on wind and solar energy. But lesser-known geothermal, often considered too expensive, is more common in single buildings and homes.

Town Planner Frederick Presley had been looking to include alternative energy in his long-term planning responsibilities and as part of an update to the town's master plan and revitalization project for the Artic Village district.

"A redevelopment in this day and age should include alternative energy as part of the plan," Presely said.

He learned about multi-user geothermal during a conference, and liked that it offered many of the same benefits as wind and solar, especially at a minimal, if any, cost to the town.

The concept consists of a series of wells and pumps that circulate water in a closed loop. The water runs through wells about 10 feet below ground to stay at a constant temperature of about 55 degrees and, depending on the time of year, circulates to heat and cool buildings.  

Presley envisions using town land or even parking lots for well fields that will service Town Hall, the high school and hockey rink. The system would initially run through Main Street and be available to businesses throughout the Artic Village and eventually the entire town. 

The financing structure is similar to programs used by large-scale solar projects, such as those in Massachusetts. Installation costs are paid by a private developer, which also takes the role of a utility company. The costs are repaid through fixed monthly charges to users. The payments are often cheaper than monthly costs for oil, gas and electricity. And after a period of 10 to 20 years, the town earns revenue by taking ownership of the system.

The West Warwick system has an initial estimated cost between $10 million and $12 million. As the first in the country, it would serve as a model for the developer, Mimer Energy, to expand geothermal projects in New England and throughout the United States. 

The state Economic Development Corporation (EDC) expressed an interest in funding the study.

Both Presley and the EDC like that it supports green energy and the economy. "It's really a job-creation project as much as anything else," Presley said.

The detailed planning will start in the next few months, with a goal of being operational by the town's centennial in 2013. 

Presley, a Rhode Island native and progressive-minded planner, is incorporating the project with the town-wide revitalization plan. Other upgrades include wind and hydro projects, along with new tax-friendly business areas and zoning changes that encourage development closer to sidewalks. Proposed bike paths, and bus shuttles to the airport will reduce the reliance on vehicles. It's all to make neighborhoods more walkable, livable and even less stressful.

"We're just trying to create an environment for businesses to come back to this area," Presley said.

It also means making the town less reliant on fossil fuels and more able to adapt to climate change, the effects of which were felt during the March 2010 flood. 

Bringing in a new way of cutting energy costs and creating revenue and jobs is all part of making the town the vibrant community it was 50 years ago.

It's a great opportunity to get the town energized and moving forward on many fronts," Presley said. "It's an important time to think outside the box and take more risk," he said. "The old way of doing business doesn't work anymore."