A number of factors are currently pushing up the cost of doing business, but heating and cooling buildings doesn’t have to be one of them says Brian Davidson, CEO at Geothermal International.
Before companies start to worry about the implication of the Tories proposed new carbon levy or instruct employees to wear two jumpers to work, as recently suggested by the boss of Centrica ahead of the expected huge hikes in gas prices this autumn, they may wish to explore the growing role of renewable energy solutions, and specifically the benefits of installing Ground Source Heat Pump (GSHP) systems.
Heating and cooling buildings is a huge drain on the bottom line of most companies these days and forecasts indicate the situation may soon get a lot worse. Recent research found that up to 40% of company annual energy budgets are currently spent heating and cooling commercial premises using traditional oil or gas systems. Another report said that almost 50% of UK carbon emissions are generated from the use of energy to heat buildings. If this all sounds rather bleak, the pain may well be compounded in the future by pressure to meet government targets to reduce C02 emissions and use more renewable energy, especially in new buildings.
Reducing energy use
With oil and gas prices likely to keep rising the prospect of being able to stay in business is starting to look a bit gloomy for some already feeling the effects of the economic downturn. Others, however, have seen the danger and are doing something positive to mitigate its effects. These are the companies and public/private sector organisations that have installed GSHP systems and are now reaping the rewards: a reduction in building heating and cooling running costs of up to 70% (at today’s energy prices) and C02 emissions reduced by up to 50%. As the technology improves and energy prices inevitably rise still further, the potential for even bigger savings grows, as does the opportunity to reduce payback time by several years; historically a barrier to greater GSHP implementation until now.
Amongst those already using GSHP technology in the UK, the Gloucester Police Headquarters building is a good example of what can be achieved. Its GSHP system, the first installed (in November 2005) under the PFI initiative, is consistently recording a CoP (coefficient of performance – a measure of heating/cooling efficiency) above six and exceeding efficiency targets by more than 15%.
Coming into operation soon, the ‘Lake Loop’ GSHP system installed at Mansfield Hospital in Nottinghamshire (the largest of its type in Europe) is predicted to reduce energy consumption heating and cooling the building by some 9,600MW a year (in comparison to a gas or oil fired system) and reduce carbon emissions by 1,700 tonnes pa. This should save the local NHS Trust that administers the hospital around £120,000 annually, whilst the C02 savings equate to taking 600 cars off the road.
Given the impressive figures it might be asked why more is not known about this source of renewable energy and why more buildings are not using it. In Britain, it is true that take-up has been relatively slow, partly due to the higher initial installation cost and hence longer payback time, and partly because other renewables like wind, solar and CHP have grabbed the lion’s share of the headlines. Improved technology, coupled with ongoing increases in carbon fuel prices and the growing realisation that solar and wind are not the all-encompassing solutions they have been billed, is rapidly refocusing the commercial sector on geothermal systems, and GSHP in particular. Its uses and benefits are also expected to feature more prominently when the government publishes its Renewable Energy Strategy next year.
Until then, companies like Geothermal International will continue to raise awareness about the significant contribution this technology can make to the renewable energy debate, and continue to encourage the commercial sector to consider its potential as a viable and cost effective alternative.
This is a message that other countries have been quicker to take onboard. GSHP technology has now been around for over 20 years and it has a sound track record in countries such as the USA, Canada, Sweden, France, Germany and Switzerland, for instance. In fact Sweden is currently the largest GSHP market in Europe and in Switzerland it is a mass market product – 75% of new houses built are fitted with heat pumps!
Consultants and architects in the UK are historically less familiar with the technology and the properties of GSHP systems. Even so, Geothermal International has already installed over 95MW of GSHP heating and cooling in the UK at more than 1,300 sites. That’s 80% of all UK commercial installations to date, and five times more capacity than the entire UK solar industry for peak heating, by one company in just the past few years.
During this process it has been possible to prove the effectiveness of GSHP in comparisons with traditional heating and cooling systems and the results speak for themselves. Many GSHP systems record a heating and cooling CoP of six, i.e. 600% more efficient than a non-renewable energy source, and a CoP of four for heating alone. They take up less internal space than oil or gas-fired boilers and require far less maintenance. Moreover, when configured correctly to maximise the on-site conditions (which vary for each project), they are commercially viable and suitable for installation in any size of new building and certain existing buildings.
Geothermal International is, for example, currently retro-fitting a large warehouse with a GSHP system on behalf of a major carrier company, whilst also installing an innovative Energy Pile and Open Loop system at One New Change, a new 52,000 square foot office and retail development at St Paul’s in the City of London. This system, which requires that 800 loops be installed in 219 concrete piles to depths of 45 metres along with two pairs of open loop wells, all connected to 13 heat pumps, will ensure that at least 10% of the development’s needs are met from renewable sources.
New market demands
The 10% figure is important and will become more so as pressure increases to meet renewable energy targets in the coming years. It relates to the 2003 ‘Merton Rule’, now taken up by many other local authorities, that specifies all new non-residential developments above 1,000 square metres incorporate renewable energy production equipment with sufficient capacity to provide 10% of predicted energy requirements. Some are already calling for this requirement to be raised to 20% and the size of building it applies to be reduced. Thus, in the constricted urban environments where many of these buildings will be constructed, and where other renewables will not be able to provide sufficient capacity, GSHP systems and specifically those using innovative Energy Pile technology are increasingly become the preferred and most practical solution.
Given the apparent simplicity of basic GSHP systems, some people might be wondering why they haven’t had more of an impact before now. After all, most only comprise a loop of pipes buried in the earth, either vertically or horizontally, through which liquid passes that conducts the heat in the ground. This heat is then fed into the pump where it is compressed to raise its temperature and circulated to heat the building.
The answer may lie in the fact that until recently, public and commercial awareness has been concentrated on the more established (and better known) renewable technologies. At the same time, the knowledge and experience to develop suitable GSHP systems for British conditions was a work in progress. That phase is over, though work to make GSHP systems even more effective and commercially viable continues apace.
We are now at the stage where the product and the science are credible, and the potential of GSHP systems should be obvious. This, along with an anticipated programme of government grants and incentives, should stimulate the UK market in the coming years to the point that business may start to wonder how it managed to heat and cool buildings without GSHP systems.
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