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Geothermal idea stalls at ground level

Alberta Bennett tried a wind-turbine system in 1982. (MARK WILSON/GLOBE STAFF)

Alberta Bennett's determination to blaze a pollution-free path has become an odyssey of Homer-like proportions.

A quarter-century after spending her life savings on a wind-powered turbine -- it broke shortly after it was installed -- the Gloucester woman thought she was finally getting an environmentally friendly home heating and cooling system, one that is fueled by warm water extracted from 450 feet below ground.

But just as she is poised to have the geothermal system installed, a new hurdle has sprung up. City officials say this would be their first experience with a geothermal system, and with no regulations in place, they want to proceed carefully before issuing any permits.

Bennett, now 57 and disabled, spent years trying to get her electricity-generating turbine repaired. Eventually she gave up on wind power, built a greenhouse across the back of her house to help heat it, and started researching geothermal systems. Then a nonprofit group read about Bennett's long-defunct turbine last year in Globe North and offered free assistance in fixing it. When that didn't work out, it offered to help install a different, alternative energy source.

Now, the nonprofit is going back to the drawing board again.

"This is a learning process," said Elliott Jacobson, energy director at Action Inc. The Gloucester-based antipoverty agency has a state-funded contract to bring alternative energy to low-income residents in the region.

Gloucester Public Health sanitarian Max Schenk said officials are concerned that a geothermal system may adversely impact wetlands near Bennett's tiny property, which is just 1,200 square feet across from Ravenswood Park along Western Avenue.

"We are absolutely excited about the concept and we want to see more of these [geothermal projects] in the community," Schenk said. "But we want to go through a thoughtful discussion up front before implementation progresses."

Schenk said officials need more information to determine whether the project would alter the level or the temperature of the water in the wetlands. Gloucester officials also want to know more about Bennett's septic system because drilling might effect a faulty system, Schenk said.

Action Inc. has proposed drilling a well 450 feet deep, where water is roughly 50 degrees, then pumping that water through a heat exchanger in Bennett's house that extracts the heat, blows it through the dwelling, and returns the water to the well 5 degrees cooler than when it was drawn. Jacobson's group has arranged the installation of solar-powered electricity for 20 low-income residents around the state, and also helped five others receive solar-driven hot water heaters. But this would be the nonprofit's first geothermal system.

Action Inc. scrapped its original plan to revive Bennett's 10,000-watt, 125-foot -tall wind turbine, installed in 1982, because it is too close to a next-door neighbor's home and to the road under current codes, which require the towers to be far enough away so they won't fall on other homes or fling ice from one of the spinning blades.

So Action Inc. studied the idea of mounting solar panels on the tower. That idea was eventually scrubbed, too. There were concerns the panels might fall on a nearby home or weaken the tower. Then the nonprofit considered solar panels closer to the ground, but thick woods encircle much of Bennett's home, blocking a lot of sunlight.

Geothermal seemed the best option.

Action Inc. consulted with Key Heating & Air Conditioning from Portsmouth, N.H., for the system proposed on Bennett's property. Company owner Jon Sherrill said in the past 15 years his company has installed geothermal systems in Amesbury, Newbury, Newburyport, West Newbury, Portsmouth, and Rye, N.H.

"In all the years I have done this, the level of questions I have gotten from Gloucester is triple what I have gotten from other communities," Sherrill said. "I am not sure if that's good or bad."

Sherrill and Action Inc. now are working to address Gloucester's list of questions. Bennett, meanwhile, is worried that time is running out on a low-cost loan she applied for months ago to help pay her $10,000 share of the estimated $35,000 tab to install the geothermal system.

Bennett is also nervous that the process will force her to spend thousands more in upgrading her septic system, which hasn't given her any problems to this point.

"The idea was to be pollution-free, but I also am not going to kill myself to do that," she said. "If I was still young and working, I wouldn't hesitate."

Still, Action Inc.'s energy director predicts Bennett's project will ultimately prevail.

"This is the learning pains," Jacobson said.

Kay Lazar can be reached at