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Committee explores geothermal systems, banned by Town Code since 2009

The Water Advisory Committee isn’t ready to suggest elimination of a 2009 ban on geothermal heating and cooling systems. But members are exploring that possibility.

Paul Boyce of PW Grosser Consulting, a Bohemia-based environmental engineering firm, told WAC members in mid May he’s been installing geothermal systems since the 1990s, with one of his first installations at the Ross School in East Hampton and another at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

Geothermal technology involves pipes carrying water circulating underground that absorbs and stores heat, which is then transferred to ground level pumps to heat or cool residences.

WAC member Ken Pysher told his colleagues there was not a lot of research that went into the decision to ban use of the systems in 2009, adding that “pure fear” prompted the ban.

The “fear” was linked to concerns that the systems could compromise drinking water on the Island. But Mr. Boyce said the company would never do anything that would negatively affect drinking water or cause salt water intrusion in wells.

The Town Code pertaining to the ban states that it resulted from using an engineer and gathering “many scientific materials” in deciding on the ban. Mr. Boyce said geothermal systems used to heat and cool residences are energy efficient and green, compared with fossil fuel systems. He recommended what’s called “closed loop vertical systems,” where pipes are inserted into the ground to depths of up to 200 meters. This method was once thought to be a particular threat to the Island aquifer. Horizontal systems, with pipes laid in trenches, aren’t practical for areas such as Sylvester Manor, said Sara Gordon, who handles planning and sustainability for the Educational Farm.

What would it take for the WAC to recommend use of vertical systems? she asked.

The answer was that research has to be done, and even if it reveals the WAC should recommend eliminating the ban and implementing vertical systems, there would have to be further discussions by the Town Board, plus an eventual public hearing before any action could be taken, Councilwoman Meg Larsen said.

Resident Guillaume de Dalmas said in Europe, closed vertical systems have been used. He said for 40 years the Île de Porquerolles, what known as “the Nantucket of France,” has experienced no problems.

Shelter Island officials have frequently looked to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard as guides to what might work with a fragile aquifer.

WAC member Lisa Shaw questioned whether there could be problems with maintenance of closed loop systems. Mr. Boyce said the only problem he would foresee is if someone were to excavate an area where a closed loop system was in place without knowing it was there, it could be ripped out. “We’re being asked to open our minds,” WAC Chairman Peter Grand said about the exploration of geothermal energy.