Environment Picture

Gas bill? Forget about it at new Farmington Hills City Hall!

Geothermal, solar, will help save $1 million
Gas bills are a thing of the past at Farmington Hills City Hall, where efficient and renewable energy technologies heat, cool, illuminate and maintain the new $8 million building.

The facility is a showcase for a new era of modern energy systems that are becoming more commonplace in Michigan as the state diversifies its energy strategy.

The project is seeking “gold” certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, which would make it the first city hall in Michigan to achieve the designation.

“We could have spent half as much money and put lipstick on a pig,” said City Manager Steve Brock. “But we are committed to a building that will last more than a 10- or 15-year lifespan.”

The new City Hall was rededicated at a ceremony and open house Nov. 17 even as workers were still fine tuning the modern technology systems that are expected to save more than $1 million in energy purchases during the next 20 years. The city also projects savings of 9,500 gallons of water each year and a reduction in global warming carbon dioxide emissions of 300 tons per year—equivalent to taking 50 vehicles off the road.

Brock said the city will be asking developers to include more energy-saving designs in new developments, so it made sense for the city to lead the way. “We want to lead by example. We’re more and more asking that developers go this route. And to the degree that it’s practical and it works, this is the way to go.”

Among the building’s features: Arrays of solar panels provide electricity and hot water, rain gardens capture stormwater for beneficial use, and the building design lets sunlight—not electric light—illuminate most offices and meeting areas.

Stairway steps are made from recycled glass bottles, the elevator uses biodegradable hydraulic fluid, a living “green roof” provides cooling and stormwater retention, and countertop composters are fed coffee grounds and food scraps.

But the workhorse of the new facility is a geothermal system that draws on the constant 55-degree underground temperature to heat and cool City Hall. The system is so efficient that the building is no longer hooked up to the natural gas line that previously provided heating.

Forty wells 280 feet below the complex’s parking lots and grounds carry a continuous loop of 1.5-inch pipe on a journey of almost six miles through the earth. Liquid in the pipe assumes the constant 55-degree underground temperature. In the summer, the cool liquid provides air conditioning. In the winter, it provides most of the energy needed to keep the offices warm. A nudge from solar-powered heat pumps makes up any difference to keep the offices comfortable.

The geothermal system was built by Rochester, MI-based Frank Rewold and Son, Inc., one of many local contractors who helped build and install the systems.

Geothermal systems are becoming more affordable as new tax incentives, rising conventional energy costs and more competitively priced equipment are shrinking the payback period on investments in such systems, according to a feature on Rewold’s geothermal work in a recent Construction Association of Michigan magazine.

“The payback … depends on several factors,” the newsletter quoted owner Frank Rewold as saying. “But it could be anywhere from four to six, possibly eight (years). At any rate, the payback is in the single rather than the double digits now.

City officials said the payback period on the entire City Hall project was difficult to assess, but Nate Geinzer, management assistant with the city, said the building should “pay for itself over 20 years through energy and operational savings.”

Of the payback, more than $1 million will be in direct energy savings. Experts say geothermal and solar systems are also a hedge against fluctuating fuel costs. Sharp spikes in electric or natural gas rates have no impact on systems whose fuels—sunlight and ground temperature—are free.

Statewide, renewable energy and energy efficiency are coming of age, thanks in part to laws passed in 2008 that require the state’s major utilities to generate 10 percent of their electricity from renewable energy by 2015, and cut existing power use by one percent each year beginning in 2012.

Proponents say the measure will create in-state jobs and reduce the amount of money Michiganders send out of state to pay for imported coal. Currently, almost two-thirds of Michigan’s electricity is generated from coal-fired power plants.

“This project showcases what you get when you mix environmental stewardship with Michigan engineering and innovation,” said Tremaine Phillips, special assistant to the acting deputy director of the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor & Economic Growth. “At a time when municipalities across the nation are looking for ways to cut costs, this building will save taxpayers money every single year while putting Michiganders back to work on construction projects like drilling geothermal wells and installing rooftop solar systems.”
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