The sounds of the season: geothermal heat pumps as renewable?

The time has finally arrived. The 44th president of the United States has been selected. For months we have been subjected to speeches, commercials, etc., featuring each candidate’s viewpoints, and, of course, what campaign would be complete without each other ripping into the other's policies.

One thing is for certain during this campaign, and in recent campaign memory, similar speeches with catchphrases try to grab our attention. Words like “green,” sustainability, dependence on foreign oil, drilling, clean coal, solar, geothermal, etc. The list goes on. I think both men favor the idea of a more sustainable planet, but the route is a little different. When Governor Romney talks of renewables, I can’t decide if he’s talking about part of his energy program or a new Oscar Mayer lunch pack. President Obama can’t talk about solar without the whole Solyndra thing in the backs of people’s minds. And do you think either of them really understands the ins and outs of geothermal?
Speaking of geothermal, recently I was fortunate enough to talk with Allison Bailes, PhD, founder and president of Energy Vanguard,, a source for training, consulting, design (HVAC), and HERS provider services. Allison contributes a blog on the site that is both informative and thought provoking. Recently, he wrote on the topic of whether a geothermal or ground-source, heat pump counts as a renewable heat source. (
What I found most interesting about this was: how many of us really know the ins and outs of geothermal? According to Bailes, “I don't use the term 'geothermal heat pump.' It's too confusing. Even Thomas Friedman, the columnist for the New York Times who's written some well-received books about the environment, is confused about this. He wrote in a column a few years ago that he's using renewable energy in his home because he installed a geothermal heat pump. Really now. If a ground source heat pump is a renewable energy source, then so is a refrigerator.”
Interestingly, Bailes describes the confusion, “I think the source of the confusion about ground-source heat pumps and renewable energy is the unfortunate use of the term 'geothermal' in connection with these devices. When you hear the word 'geothermal,' you think of lava or geysers, of volcanoes blowing their tops. You think of heat engines being driven and doing useful work by harnessing the heat from within the earth. But that's not what ground-source heat pumps are or do. They're just like your regular air conditioner or heat pump except they use the ground instead of the air as the source or sink for heat. They still use electricity to power the pump that moves the working fluid through the loops. They still use electricity for the blower that moves the air through the duct system. They still use even more electricity to run the compressor, which is the pump for the refrigeration cycle. That electricity generally comes from outside the home, often from a power plant that burns coal or natural gas. Last I heard, most folks don't consider those fuels renewable.”
I asked Allison about the muse for such a blog.
JM: What was your impetus for writing this blog? And why does this make you so crazy?
AB: It's possible that my annoyance began when Thomas Friedman wrote a few years ago that he was using renewable energy because he installed a geothermal heat pump. To me, a heat pump is a heat pump, no matter where it gets or deposits the heat from a building. You put electricity in and you use it to move some heat. It's fundamentally different from capturing solar energy and putting it into hot water or converting it into electricity or from using high-grade heat from a true geothermal source.
JM: If not renewable, ground source heat pumps are __________?
AB: ...just like other heat pumps, air conditioners and refrigerators. 
JM: Do you think that there is a lack of understanding or education regarding certain topics among contractors and marketers for that matter?
AB: Absolutely! That gap is what fuels my blog. From ventilating dehumidifiers that suck in bad air from a vented crawl space to oversized air conditioners to attic kneewalls that lead to uncomfortable bonus rooms and much more, I have no shortage of topics to write about. I'm trying to raise awareness of the problems with buildings so that the occupants know enough to ask for work to be done properly and contractors can learn some of the building science behind their work.
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