Lobbying for Ground Source Energy

The Ground Source Heat Pump Association aims to explain ground source energy to government in the wider context of aiming to combat climate change.

There are a number of key reasons why use of Ground Source Heating is beneficial to the country as a whole:

  • Ground Source Heating provides one of the most economic routes to providing on-site renewable heating, reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and meeting the government's binding targets on renewable energy.
  • Ground source heat pump installations have very low running costs because they exploit the fundamental characteristic of the ground to act as an efficient store of thermal energy. In very cold weather, when heating is most needed, a ground source heat pump has access to warmer temperatures from the ground than an air source heat pump has from ambient air.
  • The Thermal Energy Storage of the ground allows GSHPs to be used efficiently at all hours of day and night – this provides the opportunity to use GSHPs at night when electricity is cheaper.
  • GSHPs do not suffer the problems of "intermittency" that effect renewable energy from wind turbines, photovoltaic cells or solar thermal panels. Indeed the Thermal Energy Storage capacity of the ground can be used to compensate for the intermittent supply of energy from other renewable sources.
  • Although ground source energy requires upfront investment, the reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases are very great and an investment in ground source energy lasts much longer than other investments in renewable energy. The ground works installed for ground source systems, a major part of the cost, can be expected to last for over 50 years. The ground source heat pumps themselves are very reliable pieces of equipment with a long life – longer than air source heat pumps which have to be located outside, have more moving parts and need to incorporate energy consuming defrosting elements to contend with the formation of ice in winter. GSHP installations compare favourably with all other forms of Renewable Heating and all other mechanisms for generating Renewable Electricity in terms of life span.
  • Many forms of investment in renewable energy require imports as equipment like photovoltaic panels, wind turbines and solar panels come from abroad and provide employment abroad. Investment in sound ground source energy installations, which requires a detailed understanding of the local geology and local conditions, provides skilled employment in Britain for the local expertise in designing an appropriately sized system and local employment in installing the ground works.
  • GSHP systems are good citizens: they are silent, free from polluting chemicals, reliable and invisible. They are welcomed by planning authorities and architects. They produce no carbon emissions on site, and none at all if powered by renewable electricity. There have never been any political objections to GSHP systems in the way that wind turbines have caused unrest and resentment and expensive government schemes on other technologies have raised eyebrows at the wisdom of excessive government spending.
  • GSHP systems, uniquely amongst renewable energy technologies, offer the opportunity to recycle heat energy. Naturally occurring energy can be captured when it is freely available in the summer, stored in the ground over the autumn, and released to heat buildings in winter. This singular merit is attributable to use of the ground for Thermal Energy Storage, which is an integral part of ground source energy.
  • Unlike any other form of Renewable Technology the power of a heat pump can be reversed in summer to provide cooling. In the case of an air source heat pump (or an air conditioning chiller) heat taken out of a building in summer is merely "wasted" to the atmosphere. It is a very expensive option to provide cooling by heat exchange with hot air. The radical, renewable cooling, alternative is to use a ground source heat pump to heat exchange with cold ground: the primary advantage is that it is much more efficient than heat exchanging with hot air.
    The secondary advantage is that a by-product of this process is to deposit heat into the ground – in advance of the time in winter when the heat pump will be looking to extract heat from the ground.
  • GSHP systems contribute to the Energy Security of the UK by providing heating and cooling from energy which occurs naturally in the UK, instead of relying on imported fossil fuels.
  • A GSHP generates heat without emitting any gases on site. This contrasts with heating based on combustion which generates nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide - as well as large quantities of carbon dioxide. All but two of London's boroughs are exceeding EU limits for nitrogen dioxide, a toxic gas linked to respiratory problems. See Air Quality.

What is holding back investment in Ground Source Energy?

With the key advantages listed above, what are the forces holding back installations of ground source energy? There are two main forces holding back installations: the first is overcoming the hurdle of the need for upfront capital investment. The second is government policy.

The hurdle of upfront capital investment

Everyone believes in the need for renewable energy in principle. However, many are not prepared to pay for it in practice. Most new buildings have a limited budget. If the initial tally of costs exceeds budget then one of the first casualties is often the renewable energy element.

Expenditure on renewable energy is a private cost to provide a public benefit.

A further problem is that the initial capital cost frequently has to be paid by a developer – who has no interest in the cheaper running costs that will accrue to somebody else once the building is completed and handed over.

Government policy inhibits innovation in ground source heating

The government regularly plays lip service to the merits of acting to combat climate change, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, encouraging employment in the fields of renewable technology and promoting innovation in renewable energy because it recognises that new approaches are needed to address the key scientific challenge of our time. Each government would like to be "the greenest government ever".

However, the actions taken by DECC have had the opposite effect in terms of the ground source heat pump industry. The number of GSHP installations in the UK has fallen as the rhetoric from DECC and its ministers has increased. Although the Renewable Heat Incentive is the flagship policy of DECC to combat climate change and help the UK meet its binding renewable energy targets the introduction has held back the industry seriously.

Despite being four years in planning the Renewable Heat Incentive has damaged the industry by:

  • being introduced 20 months after FiTs were introduced to encourage rival technologies for generation of renewable electricity
  • being introduced at a very low tariff rate on a basis inconsistent with other renewable energy technologies.         Update: DECC announced a dramatic increase in the RHI rates for GSHPs on 4 December 2013. The new rates are now similar to those for biomass boilers.
  • the RHI suffered from fundamental confusions in DECC and Ofgem about the nature of ground source energy. DECC's lawyers introduced the novel concept that heat from GSHPs would only be eligible for RHI if the heat was deemed to be "naturally occurring energy stored in the form of heat from the ground". Solar energy is naturally occurring energy which is stored in the form of heat in the ground. Heat is not, in fact, generated in the ground. The origin of the heat in the ground is solar energy. Initially DECC accepted that solar energy used to recharge the ground was "naturally occurring energy". DECC subsequently changed its view and decided that any heat recharge of the ground should be measured then subtracted from the eligible heat for RHI purposes - because some of the heat used to recharge the ground may have come from non-naturally occurring energy. Update: DECC announced a revised policy on 4 December 2013 that will apply "after new regulations come in force". DECC now accepts that all forms of solar recharge of the ground "will be fully compatible with the RHI". Waste heat from space cooling and process cooling will also be compatible with RHI support – subject to showing that "the heat drawn from the ground loop is at least three fifths of the total heat produced by the heat pump".
  • However, Ofgem, who are charged with administering the RHI, did not know how to estimate the amount of heat that DECC had thought should be deducted and all applications for RHI that may have involved an element of recharge were simply not accredited. Update: The announcements from DECC on 4 December 2013 have clarified the position so that Ofgem will now be able to accredit ground source heat pump installations.
  • DECC had not recognised that the uncertainties introduced by DECC and the complexity in terms of attempting to analyse the origin of heat in the ground were causing the commercial construction industry to avoid using ground source energy. Update: The announcements from DECC on 4 December 2013 have clarified the position so that Ofgem will now be able to accredit ground source heat pump installations.
  • Instead of embracing the extended use of seasonal thermal energy storage that ground source energy embodies, DECC had sought to exclude its use and penalise innovations by the industry that are designed to save carbon emissions. Update: The announcements from DECC on 4 December 2013 have clarified the position so that DECC will no longer be attempting to penalise efficient ground source installations.

Update: The announcements from DECC on 4 December 2013, quoted above, come from Commercial RHI Government Policy 4 December 2013.

In the first eight months of the operation of RHI only six accreditations for RHI were made for GSHP installations in England, and only £2,502 was paid out. The cost of designing and administering the RHI has been measured in millions of pounds.

RHI for domestic properties was only launched on 9 April 2014 - 30 months after the RHI for commercial properties. DECC has now introduced a cap on the level of tariff for domestic RHI based on the cost of offshore wind (an intermittent technology).


See also: How Ground Source Heat Pumps work

See also: Ten Myths surrounding ground source heat pumps that are simply untrue.