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01 July 2005

Energy from the ground

Experts at Mott MacDonald are advocating a radical heating and cooling system that can be built into tunnels or the foundations of new buildings to provide efficient and sustainable air-conditioning – an approach sparked by work at the Technical University of Vienna, a centre of excellence in geothermal energy, and the successful application of the technology on the Viennese metro system.

“Much of the UK’s recent R&D into alternative energy sources has focused on wind power, with little attention to the commercial viability of extracting energy from the ground to heat and cool buildings, despite its many proven benefits,” explains our leading foundations specialist Alan Powderham who, together with fellow geotechnical expert John Perry, organised a seminar on the subject in London.

Our proposal exploits foundations as heat absorbers, providing heating or cooling through geothermal energy. “The technique is based on casting high density polyethylene pipes into concrete piles, base slabs or diaphragm walls in contact with the ground,” explains John. “A water/glycol mixture is then circulated through these pipes to heat buildings, bridges and underground space in winter and cool them in summer.” Research at the Technical University of Vienna suggests that for every watt of energy needed to operate the system, between 3.5W and 5W is returned as heat energy. “We’ve carried out an in-depth evaluation of potential application for Heathrow’s Terminal 5 and other projects are also being considered,” says Alan. “Meanwhile we’ve been strengthening our relationships in this area with other universities besides Vienna, including Cambridge, Imperial College and Cardiff, as well as linking strongly with CIRIA.”

Already harnessing energy from the ground is our design for Manchester’s new £113 million Civil Justice Centre comprising court rooms, tribunal and hearing rooms and facilities for judges. Our solution incorporates natural and renewable energy sources including natural ventilation and lighting as well as groundwater source cooling.

Groundwater provided via two boreholes will be used to cool the building both directly, using under-floor cooling systems and heat exchangers, and indirectly by providing heat rejection for chillers. The scheme improves chiller efficiency by reducing normal operating temperatures, resulting in the installation of two rather than three 600kW chillers. Total operational energy savings calculated against conventional cooling systems will be around 200MWh per year – a shining example of sustainable design.
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