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Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 64 (2016)


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Geothermal heat pumps and the vagaries of subterranean geology:

Energy independence at a household level as a real world experiment
Alena Bleicher a,n, Matthias Gross a,b

Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Department of Urban and Environmental Sociology, Permoserstrae 15, 04318 Leipzig, Germany
Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena, Institute for Sociology, Bachstrae 18k, 07743 Jena, Germany



Article history:
Received 23 December
Received in revised form
15 February 2016

Geothermal heating is often perceived as an almost ideal sustainable energy source and as one that
provides its users with a means of potentially heating their homes independently from established
energy suppliers. However, our research in Germany also shows that the implementation of
geothermal energy technology has triggered uncertainties regarding environmental impacts and its
general technical feasibility also beyond the household level. Unlike traditional heating systems,
geothermal technology forms a tightly coupled relationship with the complex environmental system

Introduction. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 279
Ground source heat pumps as real world experiments. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 280
Cases, methods, and access to the feld . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 281
Established technology and inscrutable hydrogeology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 281
When nature won't stand still: shaping technology experimentally . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 282
Negotiating boundaries . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 284
Openness to surprise. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 284
From energy user to experimental energy prosumer . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 285
Experimental strategies: expert and administrative modes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 285
Geothermal energy beneath the home: an experiment in energy transition . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 286 References . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 287

Accepted 15 June 2016

Geothermal heat
Energy independence
Experimental learning

of subsurface. Our analyses show that decentralized renewable energy sources are not readymade but need to be adapted to the specifc situation. Questions often emerge in situ when new
facilities are installed or are already in use. The paper discusses some of the strategies actors have
developed in the course of interactions between nature, culture, and technology to enable them to
cope experimentally with unforeseen risks. We suggest that the way geothermal energy use is
organized can serve as a typical example of coping with uncertainties in ongoing energy transitions.
& 2016 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction

In the realm of energy research the transformation from

fossil fuel based energy production to renewable energies
has focused mainly on wind, solar, biomass and, to a lesser
extent, hydropower. Geothermal heat, the heat stored in the
depths of the Earth, has

Corresponding author.

E-mail addresses: (A. Bleicher), (M. Gross).
1364-0321/& 2016 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

perhaps received the least attention of the potential sources of

renewable energy. This lack of attention may have to do with
the fact that, for a long time, tapping geothermal energy has
been limited to extracting energy from hot springs located near
tectonic plate boundaries. However, by the end of the 20th
century the use of so-called shallow geothermal heat had also

A. Bleicher, M. Gross / Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 64 (2016) 279288

become well established in several countries. Generally

speaking geothermal (ground-source) heat pumps extract
energy from groundwater and humid subsurface to provide
space heating, cooling, and domestic hot water for buildings.
Diverse technologies have been developed reaching from open
systems using extraction and injection wells to closed systems
using for example borehole heat exchangers, direct expansion
heat pumps with horizontal collectors or foundation piles
[1,2,11,20,41]. The use of low enthalpy geothermal energy for
these purposes is of particular interest because a large
proportion of fossil resources are wasted in processes where
the actual temperatures needed range from 40 C to 60 C [3].
As a result of growing political attempts since the late
1990s to foster a transition towards more sustainable energy
systems (in Germany and Denmark, but also in Spain and
many other areas, especially North America) the sociotechnical
regime of heating and cooling has become destabilized, thus
providing an opportunity for several niche technologies to
enter the market. The technologies used for geothermal heating
and cooling have since emerged from the incubatory stage it
went through during the 1980s and has made an entrance onto
the market [2,48].
Shallow geothermal energy is a ubiquitous and
environmentally friendly renewable energy resource delivering
heat throughout the year [8,43]. Geothermal energy is thus
understood by its proponents and many of the users as an
infnite and stable source of energy that promises its users a
certain independence from energy imports (mainly oil and gas)
and political confict related with fossil resources [45,46].
Nevertheless, unlike oil or gas based heating systems,
geothermal heat pumps operate on the basis of potentially
fuctuating fows of heat and water, thus requiring new ways
of coping with unavoidable uncertainty. Although less
fuctuating than wind and sun geothermal fows are invisible
for the user and any possible vagaries of subterranean geology
remain a matter of the mercy of natural processes. Given that
hydrogeological conditions in each location are heterogeneous
and are not readily accessible to close inspection, each
geothermal installation has to cope with unforeseen issues that
often emerge in situ while new facilities are either being
installed or while they are in use. Furthermore, although the
costs of heat pumps along with their ducts and electrical
installations have fallen over the last few decades, home
owners additionally need to cover the cost of drilling wells.
These drilling costs can suddenly increase if the drilling
process is hampered by unforeseen geological conditions. In
addition, after a few years wells may deliver less heat due to
naturally changing hydrogeological conditions, or the soil may
cool down because the levels of heating required have been
In addition to such uncertainties, the process of transferring
this technology into broader societal contexts has raised novel
questions about local ecological impacts such as the so-called
neighborhood effects on groundwater temperature and how to
deal with geological specifcities [5,43]. Furthermore, it is far
from clear what sociotechnical processes may be initiated by
establishing geothermal heat facilities on a larger scale.
This leads to the frst question we aim to answer, of how
the transfer of a technology that forms a tightly coupled
relationship with complex local environmental conditions from
a niche into the existing technological regime takes place. We
assume that specifc recursive patterns of practice can offer
opportunity for breaking down old structures and create novel
arrangements and strategies that are needed in order to tailor
the technology to specifc contexts on the one hand and to
further develop it on the other, so as to achieve a more
sustainable form of energy provision [39]. This leads us to a
second question on how human and non-human elements are

dealt with in situations of newly faced uncertainties. The

uptake of renewable energies and sustainable practices into the
dominant technological regime has been discussed as part of
transition theory [12,17,18]. One of the basic ideas is that
innovative technologies and practices are developed in niches
and then upscaled to the regime level where it might induce a
regime shift. Within the concept of sustainability transitions
the niche level is the place of trying things out, of developing
new confgurations of technologies (and practices) and of
dealing with open questions [52,53]. Based on the idea of real
world experimentation (see next section) we will add an aspect
to this discourse in arguing that experimental strategies cannot
be limited to the niche level but can also be observed in
transferring a technology to the regime level.
Thirdly our analysis constitutes an attempt at better
understanding: how is self-declared energy independence at
the household level achieved? This is to say that in many
cases house owners are well-aware that they are not selfsustaining on all levels in a closed system, but a heat pump
in the basement gives them the feeling to be less dependent
from outside sources. Many authors have already
analyzed user's engagement with innovative energy
technologies taking up the concept of prosumption [28,44].
This research focusses on the role of users in customizing
pre-confgured technologies to their specifc situation and
thus, the interplay of technology developers and users
[27,28,47,48]. This correlates well with the classical notion
of innofusion as coined by James Fleck. Fleck (1993)
proposed an interactive model of technology development
that aims to integrate user needs in experimental
feedback loops [54]. We will contribute to these debates by
shedding light on the interplay of governance mechanisms
(notably administrative practices) and innovative
technology users and the impact of these processes on
technology design. In order to do this, we take into account
the interplay between home owners' strategies for dealing
with the technology, the role of the relevant statutory
authorities, and the generation of site-specifc knowledge in
the face of largely unknown conditions beneath the earth's
Given the enormous amount of potential energy stored
underneath the Earth's crust, we would like to help adding
knowledge in social science research by reconstructing and
analyzing the specifcities of implementing heat pumps for
heating (and cooling) using sources from beneath people's
own homes.

2. Ground source heat pumps as real world

Geothermal technology differs markedly from other
forms of heating: its dependence on the invisible geological
conditions beneath a house is quite different from, say, the
dependence of solar panels on sunshine [9]. This almost
necessarily calls forth new practices and ways of coping
with the unforeseen changes attributed to hydrogeological
conditions. We thus follow an approach where actors and
activities by technological devices in and above the
Earth's subsurface are treated as part of a mobile collective
where the boundaries are being negotiated (and
renegotiated) during the process of assembling the
collective [9,11,28]. Taking this idea a step further, we
would like to link the notion of a collective to what has
been termed real-world experiments [1416] or sometimes
collective experiments [13,21]. For Bruno Latour a sharp
distinction between scientifc laboratories experimenting on
theories and phenomena inside, and a political outside


A. Bleicher, M. Gross / Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 64 (2016) 279288

where non-experts were getting by with human values,

opinions and passions, is simply evaporating before our
eyes. We are now all embarked on the same collective
experiments, mixing humans and non-humans together
[21:3]. The notion of experiment here can be used to show
that the collectives' direction and composition is contested
and the results presented are often not the ones expected
(hypothesis falsifed). To put it more bluntly, sudden,
unexpected changes that make house owners but also
responsible authorities and engineers aware of their own
ignorance about the geological underground as well as the
technology they are using can provide the impetus for new
knowledge [16]. Put another way, whereas the visible parts
above ground make up the technology, the geological layers
in the ground are waiting to surprise owners, engineers and
administrative people because they are intrinsically tied to
the socio-natural-technical system.
In adopting this view we have focused on three facets
that help us to better frame associations between nature,
culture, and technology. They are, frst, understanding the
implementation of geothermal heat pumps as a real-world
experiment as a way of focusing on the inherently uncertain
outcomes of activities; second, the gradual acceptance of
and openness towards surprising events by actors through
the acknowledgement of ignorance, or what has recently
been termed nonknowledge [16]; and, third, the skillful
transfer of knowledge through two modes that we choose to
call expert and administrative.

3. Cases, methods, and access to the feld

Our reconstruction and analysis of the specifcities of
transfer GSHP technology from niche to regime level and
organizing energy independence at a household level is part
of a long term study aimed at gaining deeper insights into
the development of the technologies involved. This study is
embedded in the German Helmholtz Association's program
addressing the role of subsurface geology in recent energy
transition processes. As social scientists within this
program we got access to case study areas easily. Given the
novelty of many of the issues addressed, we chose an
explorative and qualitative approach. By so doing we aim
to gain deeper insights on interactions between human and
non-human elements and to uncover strategies in dealing
with unexpected developments. We rely on several data
sources: reports on the situation of GSHP in Germany,
published by interest groups such as the Federal Heat Pump
Association [32] or Germany's national geological services
[23] as well as our own empirical material that has been
gathered via face-to-face interviewing using a
discussion threads at German online platforms on
geothermal energy at the household level have been
collected and the information has been used to inform the
systematic analysis of interview material (on this see
Based on a literature study on shallow geothermal
energy in Germany we identifed groups of actors which
have major infuence on installing GSHPs in Germany:
home owners (who decide frst on GSHP installation), local
administration (who gives permission for GSHP), engineers
employed for example in drilling companies (who advice
house owners and negotiate permissions with the local
administration). The local and the district level are most
important in decision making on GSHP installations
because regardless of the (subsurface) technology put in
place or the amount of heat extracted, each facility requires

approval according to Germany's water laws that are put

into effect by the environmental administration on the local
or the district level (see Section 5). In order to analyze the
impact on technology development we analyzed the
interaction of these actor groups in two case studies in two
different federal states: the city of Cologne, North RhineWestphalia, and the administrative district of Northern
Saxony, Saxony. We started interviewing administrative
people and proceeded from there asking for contacts to
home owners and drilling companies (engineers). We
interviewed people of mixed age (ca. 3575 years). We
conducted 14 expert interviews with administrative
employees at the local and regional level (4), individual
home owners running their own geothermal heating system
(4), engineers (4) and natural scientists involved in
geothermal energy research (2). Interviews were audio
taped, transcribed and entered into MAXqda for coding and
analysis [49,50]. A coding scheme has been developed in
order to capture the dynamics of the interplay inside the
collective. More precisely we developed codes to
identify concepts of experimental strategies such as
openness to surprise, horizons of expectations, strategies of
dealing with nonknowledge, interruption and modifcation
of everyday practices as well as strategies taking up newly
created knowledge and even processes of knowledge
Although the research for this paper is based on cases in
Germany, we also include comparative information from other
countries in order to point both to the overall informational
value of our study as well as to country and regional
specifcities. Our research thus seeks to use the theoretical
framework of real-world experimentation and to formulate
analytical generalizations of our empirical fndings.

4. Established technology and inscrutable

Far from being novel, the idea of using geothermal heat is
very old, although the methods for using this technology
appear to be relatively new. The idea of utilizing geothermal
energy using heat pumps was introduced as part of a Swiss
patent dating back to 1912 [4]. This idea was taken up after
World War II in the US, where the frst experimental groundsource heat pump installations were manufactured in the 1940s
and 50s. As a consequence of the oil crisis in the early 1970s
and the concomitant increase in fuel prices, the concept
attracted attention particularly in Europe as an alternative
heating system. At this time many pilot plants were installed in
Sweden especially [4]. Major technological improvements
were made, such as the shift to downhole heat exchangers
made of non-corrosive materials. In the following years
mathematical models were developed for estimating the
capacity of a facility in specifc geological conditions. In terms
of sociotechnical transitions at this time, it can be said that
natural, technological, and cultural elements came together to
merge into a collective that was then rebuilt as soon as new
elements such as the downhole heat exchanger made of
plastic were introduced. Thus human actors, material
elements, and knowledge began to align with one another but
the technology remained a niche phenomenon that had no
infuence on conventional ways of heating and cooling
buildings based on fossil fuels.
From the early 1990s onwards several developments led to
an increase in the number of installations worldwide,
especially in the United States, China, Sweden, Germany,
Japan Switzerland, and Canada which are currently the leading
countries in terms of geothermal thermal capacity installed in



A. Bleicher, M. Gross / Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 64 (2016) 279288

today (Fig. 1) [11,30]. The reasons for using geothermal

energy, however, differ between countries while the collectives
of cultural, technological and social elements also often appear
to be very different. In the United States cooling is an
established practice, thus, most of the units are sized for peak
cooling. In Europe most installations are designed to provide
base load for heating [41]. In Germany three factors are
responsible for the growing number of installations. First,
much effort has evidently been invested in developing
technologies for building insulation, which has minimized
energy needs and made technologies such as heat pumps
effcient enough for buildingspecifc use and thus for use at a
household level. Second, in the early 2000s rising fuel prices
inspired home owners to think about geothermal as an
alternative energy source in order to be more independent from
traditional energy suppliers and their pricing policies.

and heating systems, experts in geology and heating who are

engaged in planning a specifc facility, the operators of such
facilities (meaning home owners) along with their energy use
practices, interest groups concerned to defne technology
standards, and environmental administrators whose job is to
defne specifc requirements for groundwater protection. A
combination of growing demands from home owners,
technological improvements, and changes in energy policy has
led to changes in a networked collective: new actors (human
and non-human) have joined the collective, the roles of the
actors have been modifed, and newly created knowledge has
itself become an element within the collective and has been
stabilized. In the following we will discuss this context of
change, focusing especially on how the collective made up of
users, engineers, administrators, heat pumps, subsurface
technology, and subterranean geology has been modifed by
increased use of the technology.

5. When nature won't stand still: shaping

technology experimentally
The geothermal heating system and the technology on
which it is based seems to form a tightly coupled system or,
as we want to refer to it here, a collective [21] with the
surrounding environmental system, namely, the subsurface
(cf. Fig. 2). In other words, the structure and composition of
hydrogeological structure (e.g. soil humidity, groundwater
temperature and fow rate), directly infuence the
installation and operation of the heating system and demand
that the technological components involved be tailored
accordingly, e.g. the number and depth of downhole heat
exchangers and the rate of groundwater extraction. The
individual technological components such as the heat pump
Fig. 1. Use of shallow geothermal energy (installed thermal capacity) (based on data taken from
and the borehole heat exchanger form separate
The third development has been the uptake of geothermal
technological entities that are linked by liquid (water or
energy in national and regional energy policies. In the context
brine) circuits (Fig. 2). This combination of components
of recent debates on energy transitions heating has been
makes it possible to select the subsurface technology
identifed as a strategic priority for reducing CO 2 emissions
horizontal loop, vertical loop, foundation pipes equipped
and safeguarding energy supply [17,18]. The German
with heat exchangers or groundwater wells that is
government has therefore set the goal of increasing the
appropriate to the respective geological conditions, legally
proportion of renewable energies in fnal energy consumption
relevant circumstances (e.g. size of the property) and user
in newly constructed buildings. The Act on the Promotion of
requirements [7,8,42]. Thus, in a way, each geothermal heat
Renewable Energies in the Heat Sector defnes the obligation
facility becomes unique.
of home owners to cover a specifc share of heat and cold
As part of the process of installation, then, a grounddemand using renewable energy which can include
source heat pump needs to be adjusted to the geological
geothermal heat [19].
conditions in each location. At the same time, the
These developments functioned as a window of
installation itself triggers changes in its social setting.
opportunity that enabled geothermal heat technology to shift
In Germany the key drivers behind the development of
from occupying a technological niche to becoming a stabilized
geothermal technology for domestic use are to be found in
design supported by a network of actors and shared knowledge
the installation approval process. In the course of this
and practices. A number of technological standards relating to
process the general purpose of the facility, the quantity of
ground-source heat pump installations have been put in place,
water that can be used, the amount of energy to be extracted
e.g. VDI 4640 (design of thermal facilities using the
from and introduced into the ground is negotiated and
subsurface), EN 14511 and EN 14825 (heat pump design and
defned in the course of interactions between local
performance test).
environmental administrators, planning and drilling experts,
In spite of its relatively stable form, the ground-source heat
and home owners (or owners of offce buildings). Systems
pump technology is often modifed in its contexts of
commonly used in Germany are heat collectors, borehole
application. Shaping geothermal energy technology involves
heat exchangers, and groundwater systems with extraction
multiple actors, including industrial developers seeking to
and injection wells. The current trend shows that the
devise technological components suitable for heat exploitation
vertical system based on downhole heat exchangers used
exclusively for domestic heating is the most common
1 The EC Renewable Energy Directive (2009) demands
installation [9,42,43].
the development of national action plans which defne the
share of renewable energy in transport, electricity
production and heating [34].

A. Bleicher, M. Gross / Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 64 (2016) 279288

biological qualities as well as the functioning of the facility

In fact these infuences depend not only on the specifc
geological situation and the potential energy stored in
underground but also on the extraction rates of all the
facilities using the same aquifer. Thus the promise of
accessing energy anywhere at any
time cannot be separated from the broader conditions
surrounding and associated with the facility. With Madeline
Akrich we can argue that concerns about groundwater
quality constitute an element additional to the technology
itself [10]. As she notes, new actors (such as the
environmental administration and regional water boards in
the German case) may be drawn into the collective as they
become aware that the presence of a greater number of
facilities in the same aquifer may change the subsurface's
physical, chemical and biological conditions.
Some unforeseen developments have gained nationwide
attention, prompting changes in the collective and shifting
experimental boundaries. The most important event was in the
German city of Staufen in the Black Forest, where in 2007 it
was reported that some central buildings in the city center had
Fig. 2. Scheme of a ground-source heat pump
as widely
risen (GSHP)
by some
12 used
cm,in European
most likely
caused by a drilling
The decision making and approval processes are highly
operation aimed at providing geothermal heating to the city
decentralized and are infuenced by the local or regional
hall. The drilling caused severe damage to houses when the
geological situation as well as the potentially conficting
groundwater came into contact with an anhydrite layer that
uses of underground resources (e.g. for drinking water) and
subsequently began to expand [24]. One of our interviewees
the specifc criteria defned by the regional environmental
called this event the largest accident conceivable in shallow
administration. It seems that modifcations of the
geothermal energy utilization (interview with an engineer,
collective occur within these regional and local decision
September 2013).2 This event raised questions about how to
making processes; we will show that these processes
deal with specifc geological conditions in a responsible
include certain experimental practices.
manner and how to share this responsibility. In the aftermath of
Experimental practices can be distinguished from
this event administrative approval practices have been
strategies of incremental learning since experimenting in
modifed or adjusted throughout the country. Engineering
and with novel technologies needs to be designed as a wellcompanies and lobby groups have demanded that geothermal
planned strategy to spark the unknown. This means that
drilling operations should be subject to quality controls and
abrupt changes are part of the overall strategy and are not to
certifcation procedures documenting the requisite competence
be avoided at all costs; they may even be rendered
and know-how of the drilling company. With these
(potentially) welcome. In short, whereas incrementalism
certifcation schemes new actors certifying organizations
does not account for fundamental change but to the
have become part of the collective.
alleviation of present imperfections [29], experimentalism
An administrative working group of Germany's national
is based on the idea that decisions need to be made in spite
geological services (SGD) and representatives of the federal
of nonknowledge and thus can mean major jumps in
state level environmental administration took this and other
development. Whereas uncertainty in incremental processes
similar incidents as an opportunity to analyze known adverse
is understood in a rather negative way as a potential source
events and effects caused by drilling and by the use of
of failure and dysfunction, experimental processes see
geothermal energy [23]. This inventory of potential risks
clearly defned knowledge gaps as a meaningful basis for
formed the basis for a set of open questions regarding, for
moving forward. Thus understood, experimental practices
example, the durability of the materials used to manufacture
focus on systematic knowledge production and, in
downhole heat exchangers and of the grout injected to seal
particular, they creatively acknowledge the existence of
unavoidable unknowns and uncertainty. This at least can
These examples show that developments can be monitored
lead to a sense of preparedness when it comes to
carefully and that unexpected developments are being
unavoidable mishaps. Following Judith Green [22], the
analyzed and taken as an opportunity to generate new
importance of mishaps based on unknown factors can be
knowledge and to formulate novel questions. However, these
understood as a key to framing today's debates on risk,
changes in the collective and shifts in the experiment's
since mishaps and accidents constitute an epistemic
boundaries are not without contradictions. It is to this issue
challenge to predict the unpredictable.
that we turn in the following.
In the context of geothermal heat, it becomes possible
to explore systematically the limits of knowledge, usually
as a result of the unforeseen ways in which hydrogeological
6. Negotiating boundaries
elements behave in the collective after a heat pump has
been installed. For example, the question of how the use of
Different actor groups frame problems and knowledge gaps
geothermal energy affects groundwater temperature and
differently. The knowledge gap surrounding the infuence
quality arose in several communities when the number of
geothermal heat facilities increased in neighboring areas
2 In the German, with its allusion to Chernobyl, the
and local temperature anomalies in the subsurface and the
groundwater were observed [5,43]. These cold or heat
plumes can affect the subsurface's chemical, physical, and



A. Bleicher, M. Gross / Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 64 (2016) 279288

geothermal facilities have on groundwater temperature, for

example, is recognized as such by both the environmental
administration and experts from planning companies.
However, the focus of these actors concerns often differs
considerably as our interviews illustrate. While the
environmental administration is concerned about groundwater
quality and uses its (rising) temperature as an indicator,
companies need knowledge that enables them to better
estimate extraction rates as a basis for further planning in
relation to the technology involved. Sometimes problems
happen to be framed similarly and yet, in the context of
experimentation, there may well be different defnitions of the
experiment's boundary conditions. Boundaries are not stable
over time: they are constantly changing as new knowledge is
Furthermore the boundaries defned by one actor may be
questioned by another. Consider the following example:
changes in administrative strategies that are introduced after
adverse events such as the one in Staufen are criticized by
actors such as planning and drilling companies:
In some Federal states the approval process is guided by
exaggerated precaution. In these cases administrative
practice contradicts the overall goal to extend renewable
The main criticism leveled by these interest groups is that
the criteria applied in the approval process for geothermal
facilities tend to be generalized and that large areas are defned
where the use of geothermal heat per se is limited.
Furthermore when the collective was augmented in some
regions such as the Federal States of Baden-Wurttemberg or
Hesse by calls for the mandatory participation of geologists
during drilling activities, this was criticized as constituting
exaggerated precaution. Critical voices, such as engineers
we interviewed, claim that higher priority should be given to
local geological characteristics than to uniform regional
decision criteria. Thus the boundaries of the collective as an
experiment are continuously being negotiated.
At the same time, some other actors involved will accept
the new limitations and try out ways of adjusting their
activities to ft the new parameters. One interviewee from a
drilling company stated, for example, that the expertise of the
environmental administration ought to be acknowledged
because such institutions are familiar with the geological
situation of their community or county and can therefore also
be held accountable if things go wrong. By contrast, this
person sees his job with a drilling company as one of devising
technical solutions in order to deal with the limits set by the
administration, such as limitations on drilling depth. When
boundaries are modifed, strategies need to be adjusted. These
adjustments also depend on the actors openness to the
element of surprise.

7. Openness to surprise
The growing use of geothermal heat technology leads to
unforeseen developments that initiate changes in the collective.
We have noted above that these changes are debated in the
context of granting approval to each proposed facility.
However, interest groups at the national level are also involved
in shaping the technology. The ever-shifting dynamics and
modifcations of such experimental settings pose a number of
challenges for the human actors involved. In addition to being
geared towards knowledge production, experimental practices
presuppose an acceptance that the answers to certain questions

may be surprising and unexpected [16]. This resonates well

with Rheinberger's [25] notion that one fundamental
characteristic of an experiment is that it is deliberately
arranged to generate surprises. Hence in the course of
designing and structuring a geothermal heat experiment, there
needs to be a basic openness towards surprise within the
collective made up of geological activities, administrative
processes and home owners. In practice, this means an explicit
willingness to change strategies when needed, to modify
certain aspects of geothermal energy development as a whole,
and to accept all answers as preliminary. Ultimately, openness
to surprise involves accepting that new knowledge might
change the overall envisioned goal fundamentally or that the
experiment itself may need to be aborted [16]. If they take this
seriously, actors have to be open to not only adjusting the
strategies they use to achieve their desired goals but also to
critically examining their goals of expanding the use of
geothermal energy, protecting groundwater quality, or reducing
energy costs and shifting or redefning the boundaries of the
A statement contained in the report by Germany's
national geological services indicates that unfavorable
developments in the context of geothermal heat installations
are considered an exception: accidents are extremely rare
when facilities are installed. [] However the total amount
of damage is not known. Potentially damage is identifed or
assigned to a specifc drilling or facility only later [23:X].
Although the goal of using geothermal heat was not called
into question by the potential occurrence of damage,
attention was drawn to unresolved questions and potentially
negative developments as well as to the need to adjust
strategies and modify boundaries experimentally in line
with newly emerging knowledge.
An example of this was reported in an interview by a
representative of the local administration in the city of
Dresden (Saxony). The town's administrative staff became
aware of potential problems when groundwater
temperatures in the town center increased noticeably a
development very closely linked to groundwater quality.
The hypothesis of the local environmental administration
was that this development was triggered by ground-coupled
cooling systems used for offce buildings, a large number of
which had recently been installed in the town. It was
doubted that the temperature would increase further. Rather
than taking this hypothesis as an opportunity to prevent new
geothermal installations, the environmental administration
simply acknowledged the fact that this isolated observation
left many questions unanswered. Was this just a local
phenomenon? Was this part of a short-term or a long-term
development? In reaction to these uncertainties, the town's
environmental administration decided to install a
community-wide groundwater monitoring system in order
to systematically collect and analyze data on groundwater
temperature. The data collected did not point to a continued
increase in water temperature but rather to its stabilization.
Thus there was deemed to be no need to restrict geothermal
installations. Nevertheless, this incident served to trigger an
awareness of unanswered questions such as the local impact
of geothermal facilities on groundwater temperature within
the administration.
Openness to surprise in a radical sense that accepts that
envisaged goals have to be changed is challenging for the
actors involved in geothermal heat projects, because it
requires a fundamental reorientation and may even entail
fnancial challenges due to the investments made in the
project infrastructure. In this regard geoscientist Thomas
Kohl has stated in a newspaper interview: a skilled
drillmaster knows exactly what is going to happen if, for

A. Bleicher, M. Gross / Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 64 (2016) 279288

example, he encounters a large amount of water within the

Muschelkalk (shellbearing limestone). Sometimes he has to
stop drilling [33]. Thus in cases when available evidence
and expertise suggest that adverse environmental impacts
are likely to occur, a reasonable and responsible decision
making process will include considering the option of
halting the project even if investments have already been
made. This, of course, is no easy task.
One example of this type of surprise was provided in
one of our interviews by a home owner who intended to
lower her heating costs by deciding to install a geothermal
heating device. After the frst winter this family had to
acknowledge that the household's electricity costs had
increased enormously most likely due to the heat pump.
The family was paying the same amount of money for
heating as before, failing completely to achieve their goal
of lowering their heating costs. Interestingly enough, the
home owner did not see this as a problem because she had
already accepted the possibility that her heating costs might
not be reduced. Indeed she was open to the possibility that
perhaps even after several seasons, things could still look
gloomy in fnancial terms. This openness to expected
mishaps was developed during the process of planning the
facility, when the home owner imagined a number of
scenarios related to the crucial question of heating prices,
over which she had no infuence. In so doing she broadened
her horizon of expectations and decided in favor of a
geothermal heat system based on these scenarios, knowing
that one of her main goals minimizing heating costs
might not be achieved. Among home owners especially it
seems to be the pioneers who are convinced by the
technology who are more open to this type of surprise [9].
They want to be trend-setters by using a technology that is
environmentally friendly: because we beneft from fnally
having the feeling it is environmentally friendly. That's why
we are willing to pay more money (Interview with home
owner, May
Thus, we could fnd openness to surprise among all
types of actors we analyzed. However, it remains to be
studied under what circumstances these actors' openness is
constructively gathered towards a process of collective

8. From energy user to experimental energy

Every home owner has potentially to deal with
unforeseen developments. Our observation (since 2012) of
some German online platforms3 (where users write about
their experiences with their heating systems, amongst
others on geothermal heating systems) along with the
qualitative interviews we have conducted indicate that
home owners tend to take an active role in the collective
even if, after some months of use it turns out that the
technology has not delivered the results expected (e.g.
when the room temperature is too low, energy prices are too
high, or the heat pump is working day and night). This
contradicts the image many technology developers have, at
least in Germany, of home owners who just want to have a
well-heated house and are not interested in technological
details. This is even more surprising since ground source
heat pumps are typically delivered in an integrated package,

which offcially relatively few users redesign and change

[28]. The design of the subsurface technology is mainly
determined by hydrogeological conditions and the
technology available. However, two major decisions have
to be taken by every home owner prior to the installation of
a facility: frst, whether to implement a horizontal loop
system (11.5 m depth) or a vertical system (open or closed
system, depending on the geological conditions) (up to 400
m depth) and, second, for what purpose the system is to be
used heating and cooling or just heating [3537]. As we
have noted, users are easily able to (and in some cases have
to) overcome the prescribed role of energy consumer and
actively take decisions and become intimately familiar with
the technology. In the following we would like to link our
observations on citizens active in energy production to
debates on inventive energy users [27], energy
citizenship [38], or on energy prosumers [9,26]. In
particular the latter term refers to the fact that, especially in
the domestic sector, the demarcation between energy
supply (production) and demand (consumption) is
increasingly blurred due to the introduction of household or
community level renewable energy producing technologies
[28,44,47,48]. It appears crucial that citizens become
enabled to participate more fully in critical issues of energy
production in everyday life.
However, as indicated above, if things develop unfavorably
home owners can hardly change the technological trajectory
they have embarked upon in the short term due to the fnancial
investment they have already made. Indeed, adjustments are
most expensive immediately after the facility has been
installed, as the costs of installation have not yet amortized.
Although one argument given in favor of geothermal heat
technology is that the technologies located underground will
have to be replaced in only one hundred years or so, many
people assume they have a life expectancy of about 20 years,
which is similar to traditional heating systems. Thus the
established stage for a given facility seems to last only for a
relatively short time (20 years), after which adjustments again
appear to be easy. We come to a twofold conclusion. On the
one hand the case of GSHP installations shows that
unfavorable developments (or problems with the technology)
become known only after the decision for the technology has
been taken [29]. On the other hand, one may argue that the
costs for adjusting the technology are highest immediately
after the installation of the system. Later adjustments become
easier when the costs of the installation have been amortized
over time.
In short it appears that installing geothermal heating
systems at a household level means that the diffculties of
changing the system are recognized. These diffculties,
however, have to be handled in order to run a cheap and costeffective system in the medium term, and achieve energy
independence from established energy suppliers in the long
term. Energy independence in the context of geothermal heat
in most cases is an illusion as GSHP still needs a certain
amount of electricity that usually is not produced by home

9. Experimental strategies: expert and

administrative modes



A. Bleicher, M. Gross / Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 64 (2016) 279288

Openness to surprise enables actors to cope with new

developments in a productive way and to experimentally
reorganize their activities based on newly created knowledge.
The question remains how knowledge created in these local,
highly decentralized settings is taken up in further
developments of the technology. This is what we will focus on
in this section.
As stated above, approval processes are a key dynamic of
technology development in Germany and are highly

technology involved. These individuals are able to interpret

geological data and to evaluate modifcations and adjustments
of technological elements.
Boundaries and limits are negotiated individually for each
geothermal facility by the actors involved. This leads to the
question of whether the approval process and the criteria on
which it relies are transparent for other actors who are not
involved in the specifc case. Within this expert mode of
dealing with nonknowledge, the process of transferring newly
and knowledge transfer. In order to move to responsible forms of

decentralized, hinging on decisions taken by local

environmental administrations. This has crucial implications in
terms of learning processes devise new modes of decision
making that ft the specifc contexts in which knowledge gaps
have become apparent. In order to clarify this issue, we
suggest the categories of expert mode alongside a more
administratively oriented mode of decision making.
The following comment made by a representative of a
local environmental administration seems typical for the
expert mode of dealing with knowledge creation:
We're allowed to make mistakes as well. However, it's not
the Wild West here, you know, wherehey, let's give it a
try no. We work with the guidelines that exist and also
draw on prior experience, so bit by bit we move ahead
(Interview with a representative of a local environmental
agency, May 2013).
This comment points to the fact that actors focus on
knowledge production. It is interesting to see here that mishaps
are expected and they are also not attributed to the actors per
se as long as they follow a systematic strategy. In the case
reported here a strategy has been developed by the two
employees of the environmental agency, responsible to give
permissions for geothermal heat facilities. It relies mainly on
thoughtful adaptation and combination of aspects addressed in
diverse guidelines. These guidelines are provided by different
interests. The strategy is part of a daily practice and not
available in any offcial document. However, it appears to be
accepted by the supervisor, as has been expressed in our
interviews. This is the way people working in environmental
administrations who actively take account of unresolved issues
seek to sustain fexibility in their decision making. Such
fexibility entails, for example, adapting project approvals to
conform to water legislation and taking into account new
fndings when formulating these approval documents. This
may be done by, for example, defning the technological
requirements for drilling (e.g. as regards drilling depth), setting
the installation parameters (quantity of energy that can be
extracted from and stored in the ground), or implementing a
(long term) monitoring process.
Adjustments occur in an evolving manner from one
approval process to the next by taking into account existing
knowledge such as that available in the form of offcial
guidelines which are interpreted and adjusted in relation to a
specifc case. New questions and knowledge gaps can thus be
directly acknowledged and taken into account for future
planning. However, it seems that the extent to which
unresolved questions are taken into account and knowledge is
fed into the process depends on subtle differences in awareness
among the individuals concerned with the issue. In this sense,
individuals shape the way newly produced knowledge is
incorporated into the overall process. It seems that this way of
approaching the approval process is most often adopted by
those who have expertise in geology, hydrology, or the

experimentation in situations of unavoidable ignorance, we need to move

away from classical evidence-based decision making and
created knowledge to a generalized and abstract level that
might be shared with actors beyond the single decision making
process seems to be crucial.
Unlike the expert mode, other administrative settings
encourage the approval of geothermal heat facilities on the
basis of rather standardized sets of criteria. A representative of
a regional environmental administration in the administrative
district of Northern Saxony described their decision making as
relying on standardized guidelines developed by an
administrative expert working group convened at the federal
state level. The working group examines new developments
and decides where the focus in decision making ought to be
and the kinds of problems around which awareness should be
raised. As this particular interviewee is an administration
secretary with no specifc expertise in (hydro-) geology or
similar areas, she relies exclusively in her decision making on
the criteria formulated in the guidelines provided by the
working group. This being the case, decision criteria are not
usually modifed in individual cases requiring approval. Here,
it is rather unlikely that new developments will be taken up
and responded to immediately, while adjustments within a
specifc case are also rare. It takes time for the expert group to
evaluate new developments and to give advice on decision
making at the local level. Contrary to the expert mode, the
administrative mode seems to provide greater transparency
regarding the decision making process and the criteria on
which decisions are based as the guidelines are available in
written form.
Thus understood, the expert mode seems to facilitate
processes of enriching and modifying objects by means of
new elements which can easily be taken up in individual
decisions. The mobilization of the modifed objects,
however, seems to pose problems, as systematic analysis of
individual cases along with their interpretation and
evaluation and the generalization of results takes place only
randomly. Standardized decision criteria as seen in the
administrative mode indicate that there is an immutable
object (e.g. a set of criteria) that is mobile [51]. Even more
so this administrative mode shows that innovation and
diffusion are closely coupled and may even coincide [54].
In response to adverse events such as the one in Staufen,
administrations in several federal states created immutable
mobiles such as a limit on drilling depth or a ban on
geothermal drilling in water protection areas.

10. Geothermal energy beneath the home: an

experiment in energy transition
Transferring a technology from a laboratory context to a
realworld setting prompts new questions that cannot be
anticipated. A green technology may create new challenges
in all aspects of sustainability. This is especially true in
geothermal energy where the universal technology of heat
pumps and downhole heat exchangers has to form a

A. Bleicher, M. Gross / Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 64 (2016) 279288

collective that is tightly coupled with the natural and social

environment and with very specifc geological contexts.
Ground coupled heat pumps are an approved technology
and have been applied in millions of installations all over
the world [30,41]. At the same time each installation is
highly specifc and depends on local hydrogeological
conditions. Knowledge about the way geothermal heat
technology interacts with largely inaccessible geological
environments in specifc locations does not exist until the
technology is applied, and the actors involved cannot know
beforehand which questions will arise from these specifc
interactions [31]. Surprising developments trigger an
awareness of unanswered questions. Even if geothermal
heat technology is promoted as an approved technology,
each installation becomes an experiment within a specifc
collective that may fail and, as we have seen above, is
even allowed to do so (albeit within limits). This is
important because small-scale initiatives need the space to
experiment and to fail.
We discussed above how actors rely on experimental
strategies to further develop geothermal energy technology
in real-world conditions. These strategies help them to
defne the boundaries of this experiment in a collective
made up of home owners, engineers, approval authorities,
the subssurface, and technological elements. They also help
the actors in the collective to identify areas of
nonknowledge connected with this form of renewable
energy. Although not representative, in all our interviews
actors repeatedly told us that they accept that things may
develop differently from what was expected they accept
that strategies have to be adjusted and that any answers they
may fnd are preliminary nonknowledge is the norm. This
is important in cases where the actors involved have the
opportunity to organize the implementation of the
technology as responsible participating experimenters. In
such cases, the experimental strategies used when
implementing geothermal heating technology remain on a
small scale and involve a limited number of human actors,
meaning that the latter can communicate directly with their
neighbors (e.g. drilling experts) in the collective. This
poses a challenge when it comes to 'enriching groundsource heat pump technology with new knowledge.
Using an approach informed by real world experiments
sociology as well as science and technology studies allows
us to more adequately frame the modifcation processes
that occur within the collective of human and technological
elements in situ and that accompany the spread of ground
coupled heat pumps in the wider society and into the
technological regime. Furthermore, it allows showing on
how the actors involved communicate their own
nonknowledge, understood not in terms of failure or sloppy
investigation or failed technology implementation but
rather as a normal way in coming to terms with ground
source heat pumps. The metaphor of experimentation can
thus be rendered productive in terms of framing selforganized guidance and to stimulate refection.
We have been able to show that geothermal heating
technology is modifed by specifc social and geological
conditions (e.g. aquifers used for drinking water, humidity
of the subsurface), which in return has an impact on
societal structures (e.g. defnition of restrictions in order to
protect groundwater). This perspective also indicates that
decentralized renewable energy sources that form a
collective that is tightly coupled with a natural system such
as the subsurface are not ready-made but need to be
adapted to the specifc situation using experimental

strategies. In the course of this, potential trade-offs between

different sustainability goals are negotiated by the actors,
e.g. CO2 reduction by using renewable energy vs. protection
of the local environment (groundwater).
Geothermal heat as a source of domestic energy holds
out the promise of no longer being dependent on fossil
fuels or geopolitical conficts. However, each selfsuffcient energy producer moves from being a spectator
to becoming a participant and thus taking part in an
experiment that has the potential to develop in unforeseen
directions. This type of design process, however, should not
be interpreted as a sign of technology development in its
early stages (niche) or of an irresponsible tinkering with
sociotechnical artifacts; rather, it actually appears to be an
essential feature of technological innovation per se. After
all, openness to surprise and an awareness of this situation
might enable actors to fnd appropriate coping strategies.
In the longer term, a shared way of framing problems
and defning goals might provide a means of pooling
resources and expertise in order to enable actors to better
deal with unforeseen developments and to adjust their
strategies in order to follow a sustainable energy transition
pathway. Although the use of low enthalpy geothermal
energy represents but one small part of many countries
energy transitions from fossil fuel based to renewable forms
of energy production, its experimental context could be
seen as a model for other areas of the much larger
experiment of shifting towards sustainability. Instead of
focusing on the question of acceptance, a focus on
experimental strategies makes it possible to identify
moments of continual development and innovation in the
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