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Renewable Energy and the HVAC Sector: Solar and Geothermal Alternatives

Most homeowners already know that making the switch to a power source fueled by renewable energy can save them money on their utility bills, contribute to a greener home, reduce their carbon footprint and improve the air quality and quality of life for those that they live with. However, at the end of the day, reliance upon major appliances, such as washers and dryers, light systems and HVAC units, is still required across the grid.

As such, on-the-fence adopters of this new technology may be hesitant to make the investment in renewables, wondering how they’ll power such devices should there be a downturn or disruption in the supply. For instance, will their washer work when it’s cloudy outside if they get solar panels? Will they swelter in the summer and freeze in the winter if the panels aren’t able to adequately charge and electrify their heating and cooling systems? Thankfully, there is much research taking place within this sector and leading the charge is improved HVAC technology, able to work in tandem with renewable resources to keep homes both comfortable and eco-conscious.

Making Strides Toward Solar

Within the HVAC industry, both solar and geothermal energy are the two main players emerging as viable alternatives to traditional fossil fuels. When integrated into a solar panel system, HVAC units can still retain their operability and performance. Thanks to built-in energy storage technologies, they can also maintain power reserves to use in the event of inadequate solar exposure.

As utility professionals know, there are two main types of solar panel systems. These can either be standalone units or they can be incorporated into a greater grid network. The standalone systems will supply AC or DC loads independent of any grid, though most are reliant upon batteries to operate. Conversely, grid-connected systems operate in tandem with and parallel to a greater electric grid. As the photovoltaic cells in the solar panels absorb energy from the sun, it is stored in the grid as AC power, where it is then transported back to the household to power the AC units.

In this setup, a home relying on solar power to generate their HVAC operation could still use a standard HVAC unit. However, in recent years, there has been a manufacturer’s movement toward greener HVAC units designed specifically for solar-powered operation. In many cases, these are sold as a packaged unit, with the heating/cooling system sold in tandem with a rooftop solar panel system.

Geothermal as an Alternative

An HVAC system that uses geothermal energy relies upon below-ground, subterranean temperatures to help heat and cool its spaces. These systems are typically comprised of a handling unit that resides at the exterior of the home, which is connected to a complex piping system buried beneath the ground. This system will usually include both a shallow horizontal field that runs along the top few feet of the earth, as well as a deeper vertical field. The underground pipe system is known as a ground loop.

Though the technology powering geothermal systems has sophisticated over the past few decades, these systems have been used in some form for the past 60 years or so.

Geothermal systems are preferred for their ability to heat or cool a home without the emission of any greenhouse gases or fuel-burning activities. While there are utility-scale geothermal power plants that create electricity from heat derived from the earth’s core, these household systems are far more simple. These simply tap into the earth’s crust (not its core), going down to a maximum of 400 feet or so below ground level.

How do they work? As water travels through the ground loop, it absorbs the earth’s heat, which it then takes with it to the indoor heat pump. Once it reaches the pump, the pump extracts the heat from the water, sending it through as warm air through a home.

The water, which is then deprived of its heat, returns through the ground loop system, where it is able to complete the process again and retrieve even more heat. While this setup works well in the winter, it is equally beneficial during the summer. At this time, the indoor pump will remove the heat from the air inside of your home, distributing the remaining cool air through interior vents to serve as air conditioning. What happens to the heat? It is sent back through the ground loop system, where it goes underground and is removed.

Moving Forward: Fueling a Greener HVAC Future

While both solar and geothermal resources have emerged as major alternatives to traditional grid-reliant HVAC units, it remains to be seen how and when a majority of homeowners will make the switch. In the meantime, technology providers are actively improving upon the components of these systems, making them more attractive and eventually, cost-affordable for everyone in the future.

Experts in the utility provider sphere can do their part to educate homeowners on these eco-friendly systems as valuable resources, explaining in detail the mechanisms that make them just as functional and high-performing as the standard HVAC connections that are draining their wallets and skyrocketing their monthly power bill.

Courtney Myers's picture

Thank Courtney for the Post!

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