Twin Towers thinks ‘geothermal’

Published 10:08 am Friday, November 28, 2008

When the Austin Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) Board of Commissioners rejected Mower County’s request to use the Twin Towers First Avenue northeast parking lot for a geothermal field, cynics wondered “How could they?”

It may have seemed, at first take, the city was unnecessarily interfering with Mower County’s ambitious plans for developing a geothermal field in the Robbins block, where the Twin Towers parking lot is located.

Mower County officials have long coveted the Robbins block for a variety of future plans: geothermal field for the new Mower County Jail and Justice Center across Second Avenue Northeast from the Robbins block; parking for the jail and justice center facilities; and a possible site for a new Mower County Health and Human Services building, when or if the facilities move downtown from Oak Park Mall.

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At least one government body — the Austin HRA Board — is not so sure the geothermal system project should be fast-tracked and with good reason.

Twin Towers’ own


“What if we want to use property that for our own purposes?” asked Norman Hecimovich, Third Ward Austin City Council member. “They (the Twin Towers) have no property of their own.”

Hecimovich is vice chairman of the Austin HRA Board. In the absence of board chairman, Jay Nelson, Hecimovich chaired the thought-provoking Nov. 19 HRA board meeting.

The county’s request to use the Twin Towers parking lot for their geothermal and expansion plans in the Robbins block may have been doomed from the start.

The request was rejected 5-1. Only Dick Lang, 4th District county commissioner, and an HRA Board member, voted against the rejection.

The outspoken Hecimovich has raised questions about the county’s wide-ranging plans to build a new two-story, 128-bed jail and give judges and court administration a new justice center.

“They want to spend $36 million on a new jail and justice center that will cost a million dollars a year or more to operate, while they themselves say it only costs $500,000 to board out our prisoners. That just doesn’t make sense to me,” Hecimovich said.

He said the HRA Board had legitimate reasons for turning down the county’s request: a geothermal field of its own for the Twin Towers.

The boiler system at the popular high-rise apartment buildings between East Oakland Avenue and First Street Northeast is 35 years old and in need of replacement.

Karl Dirksen, mechanical engineer for TSP Architecture-Engineering-Construction, Rochester, informed city officials Nov. 14, “The use of the earth beneath the parking lot as a geothermal heat ex change field is certainly viable.

“The heating system in the Twin Towers resident apartments may not lend itself to a direct conversion reusing the heating and cooling equipment that is in place at this time,” Dirksen added. “However, because of the strong emphasis on seeking alternative fuels and technology for heating and cooling new options and equipment for use with a geothermal system are being developed at a very steady rate.”

Dirksen admitted the cost to convert to a geothermal system is appear to be exorbitant at this time, “The geothermal industry is advancing very rapidly and what looks impractical now may change in a short time.”

That appears to be what the Austin HRA Board is gambling on happening.

Hecimovich said the city has partnered with Mower County since the inception of the geothermal heating system for the jail and justice center was first considered.

“We granted them permission to drill their test wells over by the swimming pool, too,” he said.

When that site of deemed too “far away” from the jail and justice center site, the county gave up on its consideration and returned to focus upon the Robbins block.

Presently, the county owns the Robbins Furniture and Design Gallery and Thoroughbred Carpet/George’s Pizza real estate in the block across First Street Northeast from the downtown government center.

Negotiations continue with hold-out property owner Tom Sherman who owns the northeast corner of the square block.

Engineers have told county officials a geothermal field can be created in the remaining property to serve the jail and justice center.

Housing and Urban Development officials have told the Austin HRA Board they need “considerable more information” on the proposed geothermal system’s installation before making a decision to approve or disapprove of the project.

Possible room elsewhere

The Mower County Board of Commissioners has not approved a specific geothermal system’s installation in the Robbins block.

According to Craig Oscarson, county coordinator, 96 test bores are needed to satisfy initial construction of the well field in the Robbins block.

In a Nov. 14 letter to Jim Hurm, Austin city administrator and the Austin HRA’s executive director, Oscarson said, “It is apparent there will be sufficient room in areas other than the HRA parking lot to accomplish the initial bore field.”

“Why then,” taxpayers may wonder, “does Mower County want the HRA parking lot area in the Robbins block?”

The answer: Future expansion of the jail and justice center and the possible relocation of the Mower County Health and Human Services offices from Oak Park Mall to downtown Austin.

But there are more questions to be answered about conversion to a geothermal system for the new jail and justice center.

Erickson Ellison and Associates, St. Paul, informed Mike Clark, lead architect for KKE Architects, Inc., the anticipated payback for a geothermal system may have been “too conservative.”

As early as last July 9, the consulting engineering firm said, the higher costs expected for the geothermal well field push the payback period from 20.5 years to 36.9 years.

While the calculated new jail and justice center building heating and cooling demands from original estimates made in February, the consulting engineers told the KKE architect, the relative cost of electricity and fuel shouldn’t go ignored.

“It has been assumed that their costs will escalate at about the same rate over time,” the Erickson Ellison and Associates consulting engineer cautioned.

“However,” the warning immediately came, “if natural gas were to escalate at a faster rate than electricity then the payback period would reduce (the energy cost to operate boilers would increase in our present value analysis).”

Consulting engineer-speak aside, the conclusion drawn was: The new expected payback of 36.9 years will exceed the 25 year life cycle of the geothermal system.