Geothermal energy is starting to heat up in Ontario. Once
considered too costly for domestic household use, recent policy
moves by the province have demonstrated political – and
financial – support for an expansion of geothermal HVAC
technologies in the coming decades. The recently released Climate Change Action Plan has set out a series
of programs that are intended to help the province achieve its
targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 15% below 1990
levels by 2020, 37% by 2030 and 80% by 2050.
Emissions from buildings account for almost one quarter of
Ontario's greenhouse gas emissions – in large part due to
the demands for indoor heating and cooling in our highly variable
climate. To reduce these emissions, the Action Plan aims to
encourage the widespread implementation of low-carbon technologies
for new and retrofitted buildings by providing up to $3 billion in
grants, rebates and subsidies. While specific details of the
programs have yet to be released, it is clear that geothermal
technology will factor heavily into these measures. The Action Plan
calls for geothermal technologies to be installed in new and
retrofitted houses and other buildings, including affordable
housing units, public schools and institutional buildings.
How do geothermal HVAC systems work?
Geothermal energy refers to the vast supply of
thermal energy that is generated and stored within the earth.
Modern geothermal technologies are able to capture and convert this
thermal energy for applications in space heating, electricity
generation and various other capacities.
A basic geothermal HVAC system has two main
components – a ground loop and a heat pump. The ground
loop is a length of piping buried underground where temperatures
are cooler than ambient air temperatures in the summer and warmer
than ambient air temperatures in the winter. In Ontario, the top
200 metres of the Earth's crust remain within a constant
temperature range of 6 – 11 degrees Celsius year-round.
Through the winter months, fluid circulating in the ground loop
delivers heat from the ground to the heat pump. The heat pump
concentrates this heat up to 35 degrees Celsius, which can then be
delivered throughout the building using a normal duct system. In
this manner, geothermal systems are able to produce between 3 and
4.5kW of heat for every kW of electricity used, representing an
energy efficiency of 300 to 450%. By comparison, the most efficient
conventional electric or gas heating systems approach 100%.
In the summer months, heat is pulled from the building and
transferred into the ground through the ground loop while cooled
air is returned to the structure. This process uses 50-70% less
electricity when compared to conventional air conditioning.
Geothermal HVAC systems can further reduce electricity consumption
in buildings by producing hot water with excess heat from the HVAC
Implications for the Energy Sector
The proposed shift towards alternative and renewable
technologies for buildings in Ontario could impact future demand
for natural gas. While conventional natural gas systems currently
heat approximately 75% of Ontario homes, changes in the prices of
natural gas and subsidies for geothermal heating may tip the
balance toward the latter. Prices for natural gas heating are set to rise by
an average of $5 a month per house under the incoming cap and
trade program. Geothermal systems, meanwhile, may become an
increasingly competitive option for homeowners, landlords and
developers given the government's promise of subsidies to
offset the high installation costs of $20,000 to $30,000 per home.
Ultimately, the incentive program offered under the Action Plan may
be a determining factor of the future presence of geothermal
systems in the domestic HVAC market.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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Ontario's Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change continues to roll out its Climate Change Action Plan with its proposed GHG guide for projects that are subject to the province's Environmental Assessment Act.
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