Doug Dougherty
Doug Dougherty

As kids, we were told, “Don’t play with matches.” The reasoning was simple. But, as adults, we ignore this warning and play with fire to heat our homes and office buildings, and our laws and policies encourage it. It doesn’t have to be that way.

It’s my opinion that we need to create paths to safer, cleaner, and more efficient energy sources to satisfy the thermal loads of buildings and geothermal heat pumps (GHPs) are the answer.

Rallying Behind Renewables

The Geothermal Exchange Organization (GEO) believes that state governments must enact policies for energy efficiency and greater renewable energy production. And we believe that state and local governments must seriously consider innovative ways to harvest the low-hanging fruit of energy efficiency that can be gained by reducing the heating and hot water needs of buildings across America.

In both cases, GHP technologies must be included for their efficient energy use and for the renewable energy they pull from the ground. GEO is working hard to educate policy makers that huge strides in energy efficiency and renewable energy production can be made by addressing the thermal loads of buildings with GHPs.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) says that buildings account for nearly 40 percent of national energy use and consume more energy than any sector of the U.S. economy, including the transportation and industrial sectors. And thermal loads of buildings claim the highest percentage of energy use in the building sector.

Homeowners pay 70 percent of their energy bills for heating, cooling, and hot water. Cutting that in half with GHPs puts more disposable income into their pockets and boosts the economy. Businesses can increase profits by installing GHPs.

Fossilized Fuels

Given widespread health and safety concerns over such combustibles in the human environment — and the availability of alternatives like GHPs — burning fossil fuels to heat buildings just doesn’t make sense in the new millennium. GHP technologies offer heating efficiencies of up to 500 percent. With that, it is obvious that the quickest and biggest boosts in energy efficiency can be achieved through widespread GHP deployment.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states on their Energy Star website that GHPs are the most energy-efficient, environmentally clean, and cost-effective space conditioning systems available today. And that’s no bull — GHP efficiencies have been measured and verified in countless configurations and installations, from large commercial jobs to businesses and residential applications.

At the national level, we continue to rely on policies that encourage combustion in buildings. The U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program gives a 92 percent efficient gas furnace the same number of points toward certification as a GHP. How does that make sense when the GHP offers a heating coefficient of performance (COP) of 4-5, making 400-500 percent efficient use of the electricity it uses?


Policies that reward homeowners and building owners for increasing heating and hot water efficiencies by installing new furnaces and boilers that are only 10-20 percent more efficient are shortsighted. Instead, energy policies at all levels should reward people for making a long-term investment to improve our environment.

Policy makers should adopt legislative and regulatory strategies that will ensure the most efficient technologies are deployed in new buildings to satisfy their heating and cooling requirements. Those strategies must surely include GHPs. And it goes without saying that any buildings receiving public support should benefit from the most efficient heating and cooling systems available. Again, GHPs are the clear winner.

I’m happy to report that there are shining examples of folks in charge who “get it.” The federal government offers tax incentives of 30 percent for residential and 10 percent for commercial installations of GHPs. And the U.S. General Services Administration requires bids for new heating and cooling systems in its buildings be compared on a 20-year life cycle cost basis, and include GHPs. It’s little wonder that geothermal wins that competition every time.

Hundreds of electric utilities nationwide offer at least some financial assistance for installing GHPs, recognizing their positive contributions to demand-side management. But the true value of energy efficiency to electric utilities lies in reduced need for new generation plants, power purchases, and transmission lines.

Innovative programs for promotion and installation of GHPs are proving to be viable profit centers that are finding increasing success. These include on-bill financing for home and business owner installations, and ground-loop heat exchanger ownership by utilities that actually meter and bill the geothermal resource.

With these and other programs, building and homeowners win, the economy wins, the environment wins, and so does society. Best of all, electric utilities win by reducing peak load demands in summer and building demands in the winter, helping to ensure reliability while balancing their load curves.

A Clear-Cut Choice

It’s fair to say that GHPs win every category of policy debate when it comes to energy efficiency, including economics, the environment, and society — especially regarding questions of health and safety. But much more can and should be done to promote their use.

Low natural gas prices will not last forever, especially as the now-hidden environmental costs and the regulatory regime catch up with the fracking boom that rages across America. As natural gas finds its best uses in power generation and transportation fuel, GHPs are ready to close the gap for meeting the thermal loads of buildings.

Natural gas produces half the carbon footprint of coal. If combined in equal measure with ground-source energy, GHPs can multiply that carbon reduction by a number equal to their efficiency. That’s gas burned with half of coal’s carbon to produce electricity used by GHPs at 500 percent efficiency — for an outstanding tenfold carbon reduction. And, on our highways, the cost of compressed natural gas for transportation fuel is only $2.11 per gallon of gasoline equivalent as of July 2013. The math is simple and the logic irrefutable that natural gas has more applicable uses than heating buildings.

Publication date: 1/6/2014 

Want more HVAC industry news and information? Join The NEWS on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn today!