Thermal Energy Networks: Understanding the Basics

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Thermal energy networks are another way for municipalities to bring affordable, sustainable, energy-efficient options to their communities. If you’re building out a clean energy infrastructure, or participating in NYSERDA’s Clean Energy Communities program, a thermal energy network project may be a natural next step.

Thermal energy networks, or “TENs,” use a network of pipes and heat pumps to distribute clean thermal energy from sources such as the ground, air, and surface water to buildings connected to the network.

Before diving into TENs, though, here’s a high-level look at heat pumps and why they are a reliable technology for a clean energy future.

Heat Pumps: The Basics

Heat pumps are safe, efficient, and versatile. They are an all-in-one heating and cooling system. Cold climate heat pumps are designed to efficiently operate in cold climates like New York State – while also doubling as a cooling system in the summer. Here are a few important facts:
  • Heat pumps are cleaner and more efficient than boilers and furnaces. They don’t burn fossil fuels like oil, propane, and natural gas.
  • Heat pumps use electricity to draw thermal energy from the environment. They move that energy indoors to heat your space or move it outdoors to cool your space.

Ground Source Heat Pumps:
How They Work

While there are three types of heat pumps — air source, ground source, and water source — ground source heat pumps (also known as geothermal) can serve the needs of a single building or be installed in a networked system.

Not sure how ground source heat pumps work? This two-minute NYSERDA video explains how they take advantage of the earth’s constant temperature (in New York State, that’s around 50°F) to efficiently heat and cool buildings.

Ground Source Heat Pumps: The Benefits
Ground source heat pumps have numerous benefits. Some of them include:
  • Minimal maintenance and a long life span: Ground source heat pumps are one of the longest lasting heating and cooling technologies available.
  • High efficiency: For every unit of energy they use, ground source heat pumps provide three to four times that in heating or cooling energy.

Thermal Energy Networks: Clean Heating and Cooling at Scale
TENs can be an effective option for municipalities because multiple buildings are networked underground and heating and cooling can be shared between buildings.

Thermal Energy Networks: The Benefits
Additional benefits of TENs include:

  • Lower costs: Networks can be leveraged to reduce individual building electrification costs.
  • Reduce grid impact: There are opportunities to reduce impact on the electric grid by integrating thermal energy storage and on-site renewables.

A conceptualization of the components of a community geothermal network.

Ready to learn more? NYSERDA offers step-by-step resources that explain how to move forward with your own community heat pump project.

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