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The market for ground-source heat pumps is linked directly to the growth of geothermal as a way to heat and cool homes. After all, heat pumps are the link between the heat in the ground and the home. Geothermal still struggles to gain traction as an alternative energy source, but many trends are in its favor.

Doug Dougherty, CEO of the Geothermal Exchange Organization (GEO), said his group’s members had high expectations for 2020 until the coronavirus pandemic. Orders for geothermal systems dropped as projects were either canceled or scaled back. The outlook for 2021 isn’t as good because federal tax incentives will drop to 22 percent of the installation cost from 26 percent.

Geothermal systems depend on these tax credit for growth due to their high upfront costs, he explained. Consumers save money in the long run through lower energy costs, Dougherty said, but many balk at the expensive installation, which involves drilling in the ground and putting in a system of pipes. The industry gets caught in a vicious circle in which high prices mean tax credits determine market demand, the credits fluctuate up and down, and so a lack of steady demand means prices remain high.

“We need a runway to build up this industry so we get economies of scale,” Dougherty said.

Geothermal Heat Pump.

ROOM TO LIVE: A geothermal heat pump creates a comfortable living environment for homeowners and can be placed conveniently out of view.

Still, Dougherty said more builders and consumers find the idea of geothermal appealing. Part of this is due to the growing acceptance of heat pumps. Geothermal uses heat pumps to exchange heat and cold with the in-ground pipes. As heat pumps grow in popularity, geothermal becomes an easier sale, said Tom Litton, director of marketing communications for WaterFurnace International Inc.

“Because many of the challenges are similar, the acceptance of air-source heat pumps is helping pave the way for the adoption of geothermal heat pumps,” Litton said. “Because geothermal can leverage most of the component innovations being used in air-source heat pumps, that advantage will always scale ahead of air-source efficiencies. The reputation for lukewarm heat that air-source heat pumps earned in the ’80s is largely fading away.”

While fixed-speed heat pump systems continue to be designed to be more energy efficient, Martin Leslie, vice president of residential marketing for Emerson Commercial and Residential Solutions, said the latest innovations include the use of modulating compressors and technologies to expand the operational range to lower ambient temperatures. Joe Parsons, residential product manager for ClimateMaster Inc., said a key improvement is variable frequency drive compressors that allow heat pumps to spool up or down based on the amount of heat that a structure is gaining or losing. It creates a more even temperature and only uses the amount of electricity it needs to condition a space.

Parsons said ground-source heat pumps offer better load management, placing less stress on these compressors. Litton said most improvements in general heat pump technology tend to benefit ground-source heat pumps more.

Geothermal Heat Pump.

“Because geothermal can leverage most of the component innovations being used in air-source heat pumps, that advantage will always scale ahead of air-source efficiencies.

Mike Murphy, ClimateMaster’s national manager of regional distribution, said ground-source heat pumps offer a number of benefits. A main one is that ground temperature remains fairly constant, which means ground-source heat pumps don’t have to fight against heat or cold. Ground-source heat pumps can be placed inside the house, Murphy said. This protects the units from the elements. It also means homeowners can go outside without having to look at or hear their a/c unit.

Just like every other aspect of HVAC technology, ground-source heat pumps are seeing the benefits of connected homes. Litton said this includes the ability to capture and analyze data, along with the ability to communicate and view that data online.

While technology helps stimulate heat pump demand, environmental incentives and mandates are growing as a main driver. States across the country are enacting mandates, such as bans on expanding natural gas infrastructure, and offering incentives for alternative energy sources like solar power. These states are moving away from fossil fuels in an effort to decrease the emission of greenhouse gases.

“There’s a recognition that building decarbonization has to be part of an energy strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions going forward,” Dougherty said.

Since heat pumps are integral to geothermal, this means increased use of heat pumps. Heat pumps in general are already popular in some regions, such as the Southeast, Martin said. He now sees more demand in colder climates as states such as New York take larger strides toward clean energy goals.

“The transition away from fossil fuels is expected to increase demand for heat pumps over time,” Leslie said. “Heat pumps provide a high-efficiency and environmentally friendly solution year-round in many climates.”

Litton said that until scalable storage technologies for electricity become more viable, geothermal is a natural thermal battery that can provide a transformative solution for society.

“Around the country, we’re seeing a push towards beneficial electrification and away from fossil fuels,” he said. “The move towards clean electric solutions is providing a real catalyst to the type of change we’ve been advocating for for more than 40 years.”

The states are trying to get ahead on an inevitable market shift, said Jim Strandlund, technical service representative for Enertech Inc. Energy prices are expected to rise in the near future due to higher demand and a decreasing supply of fossil fuels. The United States has always been used to cheap energy, Strandlund said, and Americans tend to be less enthusiastic about alternatives like geothermal. Geothermal technology is much more common in Europe, which already has higher energy prices.

Surprisingly, California, a state leading in alternative energy, proves resistant to geothermal, Murphy said. The state makes digging difficult and has a patchwork of permit rules spread among the state’s many municipalities. Murphy said that is going to have to change if California wants to reach carbon reduction goals. Parsons is more direct.

“Geothermal heat pumps are the only way to get there,” he said