From rising fossil fuel prices and volatile supply chains to the worsening climate crisis, there’s never been a better time to stop heating homes with natural gas. The UK has a chance to replace as many gas boilers as possible before another winter of punishing heating bills. But if, like me, you long to keep your home warm and comfortable and keep costs as low as possible, it can be difficult to know the best solution.
Replacing a gas boiler with a heat pump is a good solution for many houses† Like an inverted refrigerator, heat pumps take energy from the air or the ground and run a compressor that uses electricity to convert it into heat and hot water.
But what if you don’t have the necessary outdoor space, such as residents of many terraced houses or apartment buildings? Ground source heat pumps need some space for a borehole or horizontal trench, while air source heat pumps are best installed where their noise will not disturb those who like to keep windows open at night. An alternative is a district heating network, which routes waste heat from power plants or other industrial sources to homes and businesses, but is most useful in densely populated urban areas where people live near large heat sources.
Shared ground heat exchange is another heating system you’re less likely to have heard of, but a report suggests it could qualify in 80% of UK homes. Similar to geothermal heat pumps, a shared geothermal heat exchange uses electricity to convert low-grade heat from boreholes into a cozy home with plenty of hot water. A street that had recently installed a common ground heat exchanger wouldn’t notice, but every home would be connected to a series of shared boreholes that draw heat from the ground.
These can be installed far from the houses and connected to each other through a pipe that runs under the sidewalk. This bypasses the need for outdoor space for any home. Instead, every home would need a small heat pump, similar in size to a conventional gas water heater, that should fit snugly under most stairs or in a tumble dryer.
Shared ground heat exchanges can also return heat to the ground in summer, where it can be extracted later in the year, reducing size and installation costs.
If you want to replace your gas boiler with a heat pump, it is usually your responsibility to start the work and finance the installation. This can prevent households with little time and money from switching to low-carbon heating.
Getting access to a shared geothermal heat exchange can be a lot like signing up for broadband instead. A provider would install and operate the system, and as a household you would decide when you’re ready to ditch your boiler and plug it in. You would pay the operator a connection fee and then pay for heat through a normal electricity bill.
By giving households the chance to connect whenever they want, without taking on any work themselves, a much faster take-up of low-carbon heating can be achieved. For example, by 2050, 8.5 million households could benefit from heating from energy from boreholes, compared to 2.1 million in current projections.Shared ground heat exchange works best at the intermediate level between detached houses and inner-city neighbourhoods. [Image: University of Leeds/courtesy of the author]
What’s the catch?
There are problems that need to be solved to get shared ground heat exchange off the ground on a large scale, but none of them are insurmountable.
There are currently only a few companies installing a shared geothermal heat exchanger in the UK and installation costs remain high. This should change once new suppliers begin to recognize the benefits this technology offers to rapidly decarbonize many heating systems in the home.
If a company wants to invest in drilling the boreholes and installing the piping, they (and, most importantly, their investors) need to know that the money will be paid back over time. This may mean that it is best to connect entire streets at once, which requires coordination, possibly by local authorities.
Shared ground heat exchange also suffers from a lack of awareness among national and local policy makers. Recent work from the Universities of Leeds and Leeds Beckett has focused on closing this gap.
Heat pumps and district heating networks are great in the right settings. Combined, and with the right support, shared ground heat exchange could help more households decarbonize their heating and hot water and stop being dependent on the imported gas, which drives up their bills.
David Barns is a PhD candidate and research assistant in shared geothermal heat exchange policy at the University of Leeds. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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