Of Cheap Couches, Swedish Meatballs, and Geothermal Heat

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Oh, IKEA. Always going that extra kilometer. As if the affordable bedside tables and mid-store meatballs just when we are getting hungry (you always know!) weren’t enough, the world’s favorite Swedish home furnisher is now trying to give America a gentle shove into the age of renewable energy. IKEA is working with U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to regulate ambient temperature inside its new 415,000-square-foot, two-level retail store in Denver, slated to open next year, with geothermal heat pumps.

With whaaa?

While things on the surface in Colorado get really hot in summer, and really cold in winter, just a few hundred feet underground things stay a nice, moderate temperature. The system will use 130 500-ft holes to send liquid down to capture that perfect temperature, and run it back up to through a pipe system that will interact with the in-store air, cooling it down, or heating it up, depending on the season.

Erin Anderson, a senior geothermal analyst at NREL explains on the NREL web site:

“It’s the same way your refrigerator works,” with a compressor to extract the heat, Anderson said. “You put a hot chicken in the fridge, and three hours later it’s cool. But the back of the fridge is hot. The refrigerator is taking the hot from the food and rejecting it to the outside.”

The EPA says geothermal heat pump systems reduce energy consumption and emissions up to 72% compared to conventional heating and air conditioning systems. They are also cheaper over time: like all geothermal projects, the front-end costs are high, but once the system is built, it’s inexpensive to run.  IKEA, which is already doing this in Sweden, and NREL have agreed to make the engineering of the project available to the public so that other big commercial spaces in the U.S. and elsewhere can look at doing the same thing.

IKEA takes its impact as a global big box store seriously. The Stockholm-based corporation does, after all, peddle a lot of cheap goods that don’t last particularly long, and at any given moment, Ektorp sofas and Klingsbo coffee tables are on the high seas, guzzling fuel to get to living rooms from Tokyo to Buenos Aires. Sweden’s stores already get the vast majority of their electricity from renewables, and in 2008, the company rolled out a $77 million GreenTech fund to invest in new green tech companies with the possibility of selling some of the products they come up with. Here’s the company’s list of other green steps they’re taking.

As for geothermal pumps, they’re not exactly new. They’ve been used in the U.S. since the 1940s, but haven’t been embraced on any large scale because they’re expensive to install. Here’s some interesting background on geothermal pump systems, including a guide on how to evaluate your property to see if it’s suited to installing one at home. The Department of Energy estimates that about 50,000 geothermal pumps are installed around the country every year. If IKEA’s project goes off with out a hitch, it could be more. Leave it to the Swedes.