Alinta Energy’s plans to pioneer the commercial rollout of geothermal heating and cooling – and potentially even hot water – in Australia have been made official this week, with the launch of Alinta Energy Geothermal.
The Hong Kong-owned gen-tailer launched the new company division on Thursday in New South Wales, where it has successfully installed geothermal heating and cooling throughout a major housing development in the suburb of Blacktown.
The GeoAir technology comes from QPS Geothermal, a Queensland-based outfit which Alinta says it first came across a couple of years ago, and now owns after taking progressively bigger stakes in the company.
“We’re particularly excited about this investment,” said Alinta’s executive director of retail markets, Jim Galvin, in an interview with One Step Off The Grid on Thursday.
“We think that this is … the largest commercial backing of geothermal heating and cooling technology here in Australia.”
That might well be true for the Australian market, where residential applications of geothermal remain relatively rare.
But, as Galvin pointed out, the technology itself is far from new. In Europe, he notes, the market share of geothermal in residential heating and cooling is greater than 40 per cent.
So why not it Australia?
“It’s really and untapped market,” Galvin told One Step, but not for any logistical or economic reasons.
“It’s more an awareness thing,” he said. “But geothermal in Australia hasn’t been backed by a company like Alinta, previously. So that changes the dynamic of how this will be made available.
“We’re very confident this is going to take off.”
And certainly they have the market share to give it their best shot. Since the company’s entry into Australia’s east-coast market a few years ago, Alinta is well on its way to becoming the 4th largest energy retailer on the NEM.
“We are the fastest growing energy company on the east cost at the moment,” says Galvin. “We don’t see that stopping any time soon.”
One of the things Alinta Energy Geothermal is keen to convey, to property developers in particular, is that putting GeoAir technology in greenfield developments is remarkably uncomplicated, if a little more expensive (30 per cent) than your standard air-con split systems.
But it offers a number of efficiencies – in the installation and in the long-term operation of the geothermal – that more than make up for the higher cost on installation.
This particular version of the technology, Galvin explains, uses refrigerant gas rather than water, which means that its heat-exchange capability is significantly higher, which in turn means less pipes in the ground.
Further, GeoAir pipes go into the ground vertically, to depths of around 70 metres for the average residential application, rather than using horizontal trenches.
“This offers a significant benefit … in that you don’t need as much land,” said Galvin.
“For developers, it lowers the size of the network required capital offset,” he adds, because the use of geothermal for heating and cooling will significantly reduce a development’s draw from the grid.
And because it has no fans and no noise, it has no limitations on where it can be put – another big plus for builders. “If you’ve got access to the ground, we can do it,” says Galvin.
Once in operation, the systems work much like your standard reverse-cycle air-conditioners, but with fewer moving parts and much greater efficiency.
“It’s a sealed system, like the normal refrigerant that you have (in an aircon unit), but it’s using a little bit more – the loop is longer,” said Galvin.
“The difference here is the heat exchanger. We’re not taking ambient air, we’re taking ground air,” he added.
“So instead of taking in hot air … and converting it to cool air, it is using ground temperatures of 19°C-20°C, and lifting that or reducing it – depending on what you’re trying to do in the building.”
From an efficiency perspective, compared to a standard split system air-conditioner, geothermal is about twice as efficient – both in terms of the amount of energy required to run it and the cost of that energy, Galvin said.
According to Raymond Baksmati, the development director of Frasers Property Australia – the group behind the Blacktown project – the geothermal heating and cooling systems (more than 900 of them) at Fairwater can save residents $1,000 a year.
“The technology was originally estimated to save residents around $500 per year but a study earlier this year by GeoAir found that higher average saves of between $713 and $1,069 per annum were achievable, based on 100-150 days per year usage,” Baksmati said.
“In 2016, monitoring equipment was installed at a residence at Fairwater with data taken every five minutes for a period of nine months.
“Then, a two-week period in February 2017 was sampled to establish the system’s coefficient of performance. In this period, temperatures ranged from 23 to 40 in the day and 19 to 26 in the evening,” he said.
“In analysing the data, the energy co-efficient averaged at 6.75, which equates to a saving of $713 to $1069 per year. A typical air-conditioning system has a co-efficient of about 3.2.”
For Alinta Energy Geothermal, the Fairwater development – which will ultimately comprise 700 residences – is just the beginning.
“There are a lot of applications for this, and the technology’s proven,” says Galvin, who notes the company is in the process of doing a lot of commercial applications, ranging from schools, to medical centres, aged care facilities and shopping centres.
“We’re also not too far away from being able to package geothermal air-con, geothermal hot water, coupled with rooftop solar and solar hot water.
“We’re really excited about it,” he said.
“When we talk about affordability, we’re not just using that as a glib term, we are actually demonstrating that applications out there in the market.”
“Forty per cent of a household’s energy consumption is for heating and cooling.
“And the other point to make, is that this is sustainable – which is also a critical issue for consumers.”