NREL, ORNL Analysis Finds Major Electricity-Saving Potential of Geothermal Heat Pumps

Model of a geothermal heat pump cooling a building

(Credit: Department of Energy)

by | Jan 29, 2024

An analysis from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) has found that installing geothermal heat pumps in about 70% of buildings in the United States could save up to 593 terawatt hours of electricity each year and seven gigatons of carbon emissions by 2050, among other benefits.

The analysis suggests that switching to geothermal heat pumps could reduce challenges associated with maintaining electricity during peak demand — NREL researchers explain that the possible 593 terawatt hours of energy savings is comparable to about 15% of the country’s current annual electricity demand. The technology is already in use across the U.S., and the analysis explains that they may be either installed in newly constructed buildings or added to existing ones.

Geothermal heat pumps use the relatively constant temperature of the earth to heat and cool buildings with high efficiency in a wide variety of climates and settings, both urban and rural. The technology may be used for individual buildings or networks of buildings, such as college campuses or housing developments.

“Geothermal heat pumps offer enormous value for the nation’s energy future,” said Alejandro Moreno, associate principal deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy for the DOE. “This report confirms that geothermal heat pumps are a ready-made strategy for decarbonizing our buildings while reducing the need for new electricity generation and transmission and bringing energy savings to Americans nationwide.”

The study found that geothermal heat pump installation may even avoid having to build up to 24,500 miles of new grid transmission lines due to the reduced need for energy generation capacity, storage, and transmission when compared to other energy pathways.

Geothermal Energy May Reduce Reliance on Grid Updates, Expansion

As the U.S. works to incorporate renewables and other clean energy technologies, insufficient and aging grid infrastructure is a commonly cited concern. The Biden administration has directed $30 billion toward building new transmission lines and updating old ones through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act.

At the same time, the Department of Energy estimates that the U.S. will need to more than double existing regional transmission capacity and expand interregional transmission capacity by over five times by 2035 to meet national decarbonization goals. Without such fast-tracked grid expansion, the U.S. runs the risk of adopting renewable energy projects without reaping their benefits.

Geothermal heat pumps do not require large amounts of additional electricity generation and therefore may take pressure away from these grid expansion needs. The study also asserts that since most geothermal heat pump equipment in the U.S. is made locally, increased installations would support domestic industries and create local jobs.

 

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