Geothermal Heat Pump Installations In California

Obviously, an association like CaliforniaGeo would want more sales and installation of geothermal heat pump (GHP) technology than has already has been accomplished.  In truth, for all the history and hoopla about how progressive California’s policies and regulations have been over the last 40 years—the rate of GHP installations hereabouts is mighty low.

Appreciated, but how much?

Various forms of accolade and lip service as to the benefits of GHPs have been floating around the nation for years.  They come from independent researchers, government divisions, engineers, and academics.  Most have cited the obvious headwind into which this industry has had to lean.  The first cost barrier of installing a ground loop heat exchanger is what slows the process the most.  This creates a large, up front cost at a time when many projects (of all sizes) are just trying to get up enough financial momentum for lift-off.  There is an automatic tilt toward conventional HVAC technology, since its acquisition cost is usually more favorable than GHPs.  The understanding of a previous metric from yesteryear (Life Cycle Costing, LCC) has slipped a great deal.

LCC means the overall cost of a system from the time the equipment is acquired and installed until it is retired or upgraded.  This basketful of expenses includes maintenance, fuel, and depreciation.  GHPs harvest or reject four fifths of their thermal energy from or to the underground resource.  (That’s a perpetual freebie).  They also outlast fossil-fired heating or electric air conditioning by a wide margin; but often, initial first cost is more of what counts for builders.  Contractors may need to do more educating when they pitch a future system but the low installation rate-to-date cannot be laid at their feet.

There are hurdles in the way—

In California, first cost is just one of the hurdles.  The others are regulatory rules and agency policies within state government.  Although CaliforniaGeo was successful in advocating for AB 2339’s creation and passage, this 2012 legislation to cause critical energy agencies to help identify and lower barriers to GHP adoption has largely failed.  

We have cited this in various correspondence and position paper documents since its passage, but the upcoming Title-24 Building Standards effective in 2017 will not name GHPs as compliant (legal to permit), and the mandate for gas furnaces/boilers and water heaters in residences within gas distribution territory will continue into the post-2020 timeframe when all new residences will be Zero Net Energy.  They won’t be carbonless; and perhaps they’ll be ZNE electricity only.

Our organization’s position with the California Energy Commission is that all other forms of HVAC are deemed compliant with the upcoming Title-24 rules (even air source heat pumps). Why not GHPs?  Because the CEC’s software modeling does not accommodate them.  Our industry’s equipment is the longest-known, most efficient on the planet.  We’ve solved the mechanical and engineering challenges for its deployment in any kind of building.  So it’s galling to be thwarted by written rules that tilt toward the continued expansion of methane in a state whose purported interest in lowering GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions is widely known and whose statutes demand it.

Here, then, is the most recent amalgamation of where/why California is compared to the rest of the nation in accepting GHPs.  The link below will take you to Colorado University Boulder’s white paper, released December 21, 2015.

California’s Geothermal Heat Pump Status   CU Boulder Logo