Australia already has the highest uptake of solar globally, with over 20% of homes fitted with solar PV. But ground-source heat pumps, also known as renewable thermal heat pumps, are far less common.

Ground-source heat pumps take advantage of moderate temperatures below the earth’s surface to provide cooling in summer and heating in winter. Using geothermal energy is sustainable, reliable and clean, representing a major opportunity in a world in which 20% of total electricity used in buildings goes towards air conditioners and electric fans.

When combined with energy efficiency, solar PV and digital energy solutions, geothermal at household-level could be another big step towards the bold but achievable dream of net-zero energy homes.

Climate-KIC Australia is always on the lookout for projects that reduce carbon emissions, increase climate resilience, and that can be scaled for industry- or systems-level implementation in Australia. As temperatures increase and extreme heat becomes more common, and as concern about electricity prices hits household budgets, taking on household air conditioning is a critical area for action.

Enter Fairwater Living Lab. Fairwater, a Frasers Property Australia development in Sydney’s western suburbs, is pioneering ground-source heat pumps at commercial scale in Australia. Each of the 800 residences in the master-planned community will be fitted with an individual renewable thermal heat pump system, which has the potential to reduce the energy consumption and costs for the households.

This will, in theory, reduce peak demand and total energy consumption from the grid with resulting emission savings, capital expenditure savings and cost of living relief for residents. It is also anticipated that there will be ancillary benefits related to reduced urban heat island effect (the temperature increase experienced in cities caused by the modification of land surfaces).

However, until now, these benefits haven’t been independently verified in real-life, Australian conditions. So Climate-KIC Australia convened the Fairwater Living Lab, which will collect evidence of how the houses actually perform when real people are using them in their everyday lives, and in Australia’s harsh, hot environment.

The Fairwater Living Lab brings together researchers from UTS and Curtin University, data and technology from Wattwatchers and HUX Connect, policy expertise from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage and green building expertise from Frasers Property Australia and the Green Building Council of Australia to understand how the development performs in terms of sustainability, resilience, commerciality, health and wellbeing. The project has been funded through a $500,000 grant from ARENA, and $180,000 contributions from both Frasers Property Australia and NSW Office of Environment and Heritage as well as significant in-kind contributions from all partners.

Around forty of the households in Fairwater will be fitted with Wattwatchers devices that provide real-time energy monitoring, as well as environmental sensors provided by Hux Connect that track temperature and air quality. This data, as well as behavioural metrics collected through community surveys, will feed into extensive research being co-delivered by UTS and Curtin University. The research will track the actual performance against the design expectations, understand the individual experiences of residents, and monitor community impacts such as reduced heat island effect and lowered demand on energy networks.

Initial modelling has indicated that including ground-source heat pumps and a package of other energy efficiency measure in every home, the overall energy demand of the development should be reduced by over 50%. If the technology lives up to this forecast, this research will provide an independent evidence base that will demonstrate to developers and decision-makers the commercial viability of broad-scale renewable thermal heat pump deployment, and the flow-on sustainability, resilience and health and wellbeing effects of designing communities with lower local peak demand, lower energy consumption, lower emissions, lower cost of living, and lower local urban heat island impacts.

Wattwatchers CEO Gavin Dietz says the highly-innovative Fairwater Living Lab project demonstrates the value of the Climate-KIC model, with its emphasis on collaboration.

“This is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate Wattwatchers solutions while supporting the deployment of another renewable energy technology with real potential to advance the residential sector towards the sustainability holy grail of net-zero energy homes.”

The ambitions of the project go beyond one pocket of suburbia. Climate-KIC Australia CEO Chris Lee says the value of the knowledge to be gained and shared from the Fairwater Living Lab project will be significant.

“Climate-KIC Australia anticipates that the project will be able to build the business case for industry-wide deployment of renewable thermal energy heat pumps to replace conventional air-sourced air conditioning units,” says Lee.

You can read more about Fairwater – the first 6-Green Star Communities-rated residential development in NSW, which includes the largest geothermal residential installation in the southern hemisphere – and the technology and design principles behind it here, here and here.