Geothermal Heat Pumps

When we think of geothermal power, naturally we think in terms of use of the earth’s temperature differentials to produce electricity on a large scale. However, a much more widespread potential for the use of geothermal involves geothermal heat pumps, a direct-use application that employs the heat itself rather than electricity generated from the heat. Geothermal heat pumps can be used almost anywhere, unlike geothermal electric production which requires certain geological conditions to be practical. It relies on the fact that the Earth maintains a consistent temperature 10 feet below the surface. The heat from the planet’s shallow layers, while insufficient to use for electricity generation, can be employed to help heat a home or other building, reducing the load on utilities and improving the overall energy efficiency of the building.

According to a report by Pike Research this year, global demand for geothermal heat pumps is expected to more than double over the next six years, from 150,000 in 2011 to a projected 326,000 or more in 2017 in the United States (the world leader in geothermal heat pump use) alone. The primary obstacle to expanded use of geothermal heat pumps is in the cost of installation. This typically runs up to $7,000 or more.

However, Pike expects to see a recovery of the home-construction industry. With heat pumps being included as part of an increasing number of new homes, better deals offered for retrofitting, and integrated packaging that would include programmable thermostats and other features of a “smart” home. This should all contribute to a reduction in costs to the consumer and increase the demand. In addition, Pike also expects increased interest in the commercial sector for heating of commercial buildings.

Geothermal direct-use heat pumps represent only 1 percent of the market for heating and cooling at present. The technology represents a large untapped market potential for that reason. Led by the United States, other countries including China and Sweden have made substantial use of direct geothermal for heating purposes. Pike’s study goes into considerable detail about the potential for market growth in many areas of the globe.

What is particularly attractive about geothermal direct use compared to other forms of home energy production such as solar and wind is that it is available virtually anywhere, while other renewable energy forms have a more restricted geographic application. Rooftop solar power, for example, is of limited potential in far northern or southern latitudes. Wind power is similarly limited to areas with reliable, strong winds at a reasonable elevation above the ground. Geothermal energy, although less versatile than solar and wind in its applications, is more universal in its availability. There is every reason to believe that it will represent an increasing fraction of global energy use over the coming years.

Image credit: vtveen on flickr



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Chris Keenan is a green and general blog writer. Chris also maintains a personal cooking blog .

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