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What next for Ground Sourced Energy 'renewable' technology?

Has ground sourced energy played a part in meeting or missing UK’s 2020 renewable energy targets?

by James Assem

Technical Director, London

24 August 2017
aircon duct pipes

Ground Sourced Energy - How does it work?

Ground sourced energy systems exploit the natural temperature difference between the ground or water, and a home or building, in order to meet heating and cooling demands. Through coupling to a heat pump, compression or expansion is used to provide either heating or cooling. When connecting to ground or groundwater, this is referred to as closed and open loop, respectively. In the UK, these systems are mainly used for domestic heating, although in urban areas the use is more for commercial operations where cooling systems are more common.

Across Europe there has been a steady uptake of ground sourced energy systems. Sweden has led the way, retro-fitting existing housing stock and building new developments.

The UK Market

The UK has seen a bumpy road for the ground sourced energy market over the last decade. Predictions during the 2000s indicated this energy source could form an integral part – around 20% – of UK renewable energy generation. In 2008 there was a 100% growth in the ground sourced energy market1 although it still formed less than 1% of the entire renewables market. The introduction of the Renewable Heat incentive in 2011 was predicted to drive growth in uptake, but fast forward to 2016 and it still only accounts for 1% of the entire renewables market and not the revised downward figure of 6%2. So why hasn’t it gained a greater market share and helped the UK to meet its renewables target?

Let's take a look...

  1. The Financial Crash

    The financial crisis slowed commercial and housing developments down, the main market for ground sourced energy. A recovery in use would have been expected with the economic upturn and government statistics appeared to support this, with a renaissance observed in 2015 when installation of large open loop commercial schemes increased by 200% and 44 MW of capacity were added.

    However, the first half of 2016 has shown a significant slowdown with only an additional 4 MW of capacity added. This indicates other barriers to the deployment of this renewable technology such as space, licencing and technology incompatibilities.

  2. The Upward Build

    With urban environments constrained in terms of space and land prices, new developments are predominantly skywards on small plots. Small development plots pose a challenge for open loop systems (which deliver greater energy) due to the risk of thermal breakthrough from unbalanced systems, a risk which is further increased in fractured rocks.  With turnover of real estate investment portfolios approximately three to five years, the high capital cost and low return on investment means ground sourced energy schemes are less attractive to developers.

  3. The Permit

    The first-come-first served nature of licensing, length of process of obtaining consent and the potential for interference between schemes also poses a challenge to deploying new schemes. Regulations such as these are likely to be a major factor in the lower than anticipated uptake of the ground sourced energy schemes for new developments.

  4. The House Style

Compared to other European countries, the UK has low deployment of retro-fitting the ground sourced energy technology. This is primarily due to the cost and compatibility between the ground sourced energy technology, which favours low temperature distribution (e.g. under floor heating), and existing high temperature distribution (e.g. radiators). Underfloor heating is better suited to concrete floor types, which represents about 60% of the UK housing stock, 25% of which is either privately rented or social housing. Arguably, for these individual housing owners, there is little incentive to spend money on retro-fitting ground sourced energy schemes.

Opportunities offered by more district types of scheme appear to be where the focus needs to move if the UK is to meet its carbon reduction targets.

Where does that leave the UK market?

Leaving aside effectiveness of the renewable heat incentive, the future of ground sourced energy schemes may exist in:

  • The retro-fitting of social housing (17% of UK housing stock);
  • Industrial settings where longer investment cycles are considered; or
  • A more district scale either through site-wide development or collaboration between developers.

Opportunities offered by more district types of scheme appear to be where the focus needs to move if the UK is to meet its carbon reduction targets. A recent DECC study3 shows that integrating ground sourced energy schemes into a district system could offer a large reduction in CO2 emissions of approximately 50% of other district heating systems, such as gas-combined heat and power (CHP). 

With all factors considered, an optimal approach for the UK to meet its renewable targets is a mixed energy source incorporating both ground sourced energy with CHP.



1 Ground source heating and cooling pumps – state of play and future trends, Environment Agency 2009
2 DECC UK Renewable Energy Roadmap, 2011
3 DECC, heat pumps in District Heating, 2016


James Assem

Technical Director

James is a Technical Director with Advisian working primarily in in the Water Sector. He has provided water management expertise on several major projects in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, where he has lead studies assessing water resource, distribution and wastewater. He was also the principal author for developing the IPIECA international guidance on Efficiency in Water Use for upstream oil and gas operations. Prior to joining Advisian, James worked as a hydrogeologist for Arup and before this Atkins. In his previous roles he was involved in major infrastructure projects, such as Brisbane Airport Link, CTRL, ThamesTideway and Crossrail, as well as working on climate change resilience and renewable energy designs.


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