Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call via AP Images

Wayward mouse prompts Nebraska Republican’s energy revolution

©2016 E&E Publishing, LLC
Republished with permission

By Geof Koss

When Nebraska Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry noticed his home air conditioner wasn’t running properly last year, a local technician quickly diagnosed the problem: A mouse was nesting inside.

But even after the unit was cleaned out and some parts replaced, things were still awry.

“It started to smoke — the air conditioner, not the mouse,” Fortenberry recounted in an interview last week. “So he said it’s done.”

The scenario is dreaded and costly for any homeowner. But for the five-term congressman, the incident served as a catalyst for an idea he’d been considering for some time: replacing his home air and heating system with a renewable-powered unit.

“I had been discerning, ruminating, analyzing the prospects of my moving my own home, as much as I can, toward renewables,” Fortenberry said. “And really advancing the concept in my own life, not only of being an energy steward, but seeing if I could position the house as its own micro-energy farm.”

Inspired by a staffer’s experience, Fortenberry began to research a replacement unit powered by geothermal energy. It quickly became clear that converting the entire house to geothermal would have been cost-prohibitive.

“The initial cost estimate was about $30,000,” he said, compared with about $3,000 for a new electrical HVAC unit.

Fortenberry decided to keep the working electrical unit that services the second floor of his house, while replacing the first floor’s broken unit.

After crunching the numbers — including incorporating a federal tax credit, a state energy efficiency loan program, and rebates from the local power system and an equipment supplier — Fortenberry had a geothermal unit installed last summer to heat and cool his first floor.

“So by the time all of those forms of assistance came through, you’re looking at about a $9,000 bill,” he said. “So I had about $6,000 in added costs.”

Fortenberry concedes the added expense and system complexity may deter others from following his lead. But unlike with most homeowners, Fortenberry’s views on energy are informed by his seat on the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee.

Last week, the congressman recounted his mouse experience to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz during a hearing on the department’s fiscal 2017 budget request.

Speaking later in the week with E&E Daily, Fortenberry framed the decision in personal terms. “I had the capacity to do this, I was glad to do it, and I had researched all the dynamics and put together a finance package that makes sense,” he said.

“I had an inclination to want to do it because I’m interested in trying to drive toward micro-energy production, distributed energy, conservation and even the potential of seeing the household become a net energy producer. So these are all the reasons I did it, but it obviously had to make financial sense. And this is a longer-term horizon but not so long term as to be prohibitive.”

‘Conservative logic’

Fortenberry assiduously monitors his electric and natural gas bills and estimates the savings will pay for the geothermal unit in six to 10 years.

“The gas bill has dropped off tremendously,” he said. “And as an adjunct to this, I installed a system that preheats the water for the water heater by drawing off the geothermal system as well.”

However, Fortenberry said his electric bill has “shot through the roof” the past two months during the cold Nebraska winter because his geothermal unit contains an electric override mode that switches on during extreme cold. He plans to seek an energy audit “to see if there’s some fine-tuning that I can do” to rectify the situation.

But Fortenberry said he’s “absolutely” pleased with his decision so far and is planning to research options for incorporating solar and micro-wind turbines into his home.

“I’m really happy I went through with it because this is the way of the future,” he said. “Instead of me just trying to pursue policies that create a more balanced energy portfolio, I actually did it myself. There’s something that’s gratifying in that.”

And while Republicans in recent years have grown resistant to federal tax breaks for renewables, Fortenberry said that, as a conservative, he had no qualms about claiming one himself, noting that the incentives helped lower costs and create more options for homeowners.

“I’ve supported these things,” he said. “The conservative logic, if you will, is the externality costs of the hydrocarbons are not accounted for in production costs. That creates an unleveled playing field. There is real social cost to that, it’s just not reflected in the market price.”

He continued: “So that’s why you justify a movement toward a much more balanced portfolio, as aggressive as we can, toward a more sustainable energy set of systems for the country. And you’re in effect subsidizing, yes, the cost of that, but it’s offset by the decline in the externality cost of other forms of energy.”

9 thoughts on “Wayward mouse prompts Nebraska Republican’s energy revolution

  1. Geothermal heat pumps are an amazingly efficient technology as every person that takes a class in thermodynamics learns. However, they tend to be quite expensive to install. We really need to some innovators to figure out how to sharply reduce the cost of installing geothermal heat pumps. What is probably needed is a specialized digging/drilling machine to inexpensively install the ground loop needed for the heat pump. Someone get on it! The person to solve this problem can become quite rich.

    • Milt Hetrick (geothermal heat pump furnace owner - powered by rooftop solar) on said:

      Another approach is to have the ground loop for the geothermal system be provided just like sewer lines, natural gas lines, and electric lines are provided today. Large ground loops could service multiple homes. Then the builder / home owner just has to provide the heat pump furnace in the home as they provide the gas furnace and air conditioning unit today. (The heat pump provides both heating and cooling). This approach would reduce the homeowner’s cost by more than half.

    • The solution is most likely simple: air source heat pumps. There are units which function down to -15F, and are many times cheaper than geothermal.

  2. Big thanks to Representative Jeff Fortenberry, who had been a supporter of the Rural Energy for American Program (REAP), which has benefitted 100s of Nebraska farmers.

  3. When we had a house built for us 8 years ago in southern Wisconsin, we installed a Geothermal Heat Pump for both heating and cooling. There was an extra $10,000 cost, but it has paid for itself since. Highest monthly extra electricity is about $400 in January for heating and about $75 in July for cooling – this for a 3,500 sq. ft. house. With the exception of the first year when there was a glitch with the control panel (10 year warranty), we have not gone into the ’emergency’ electric heat. Install a good solar array and battery storage system, we could be totally off the grid. Toss in a Tesla or Leaf and the continuing carbon footprint almost disappears!

  4. 17 years in northern ohio with geothermal unit has never used the so called emergency heat total electric house biils in winter less than $200 hot summer might be as high as $300

  5. Unless Congressman Fortenberry has installed wind turbines or solar panels or is buying ‘green power’ from the grid, this is not a ‘renewable powered’ system.

    Geothermal systems — that rely on the steady temperatures of the earth — are far more energy efficient than using air exchange for heating/cooling (for most of the year).

    While there are geothermal systems generating electricity (such at the 270 megawatt facility at the Navy’s China Lake facility:, the Congressman is not generating electricity.

    • That’s fair; it’s not renewable, but it is more efficient and possibly less carbon-intensive.