- Open Access
Techno-economic and environmental analysis of an Aquifer Thermal Energy Storage (ATES) in Germany
© The Author(s) 2019
- Received: 5 February 2019
- Accepted: 15 April 2019
- Published: 24 April 2019
The objective of the present study is to analyse the economic and environmental performance of ATES for a new building complex of the municipal hospital in Karlsruhe, Germany. The studied ATES has a cooling capacity of 3.0 MW and a heating capacity of 1.8 MW. To meet the heating and cooling demand of the studied building, an overall pumping rate of 963 m3/h is required. A Monte Carlo Simulation provides a probability distribution of the capital costs of the ATES with a mean value of 1.3 ± (0.1) million €. The underground part of the ATES system requires about 60% of the capital costs and therefore forms the major cost factor. In addition, the ATES is compared with the presently installed supply technology of the hospital, which consists of compression chillers for cooling and district heating. Despite the 50% higher capital costs of the ATES system, an average payback time of about 3 years is achieved due to lower demand-related costs. The most efficient supply option is direct cooling by the ATES resulting in an electricity cost reduction of 80%. Compared to the reference system, the ATES achieves CO2 savings of about 600 tons per year, hence clearly demonstrating the potential economic and environmental benefits of ATES in Germany.
- Aquifer Thermal Energy Storage (ATES)
- Shallow geothermal energy
- Heating and cooling
- Renewable energy
- Economic analysis
In regions with moderate climates such as central and northern Europe, Aquifer Thermal Energy Storage (ATES) is a suitable technique to supply buildings with large amounts of heating and cooling. ATES bridges the seasonal mismatch between the ambient temperature and the heating or cooling demand of a building. ATES is an open-loop, bidirectional system, which uses at least one groundwater well in the saturated zone to actively store excess heat in summer and cooling capacity, further named as cold, in winter. The stored thermal energy can be reused when required (Bloemendal et al. 2014; Dickinson et al. 2008; Hähnlein et al. 2010; Kangas and Lund 1994; Nordell et al. 2015; Sommer et al. 2015).
The reverse process is observed in wintertime by using warm groundwater stored from summer for heating purposes. The temperature level from the aquifer is increased by heat pumps to the required inlet temperature for space heating. The cooled water is reinjected back in the aquifer via the cold well. In an ideal case, a thermal balance is set up in the aquifer after some seasons (Andersson et al. 2013; Bayer et al. 2012; Bloemendal and Olsthoorn 2018; Bridger and Allen 2005, 2010). In some countries and states, a thermal balance is a legal requirement for the operation of ATES (Bloemendal et al. 2014; van Beek and Godschalk 2013).
Overview of studies discussing the potential economic benefits of ATES
Capital costs (€/kW)
Energy supply (MWh)
Reilly et al. (1981)
Electric boiler and oil fired furnace
Zimmerman and Drost (1989)
Andersson and Sellberg (1992)
Heating and cooling
Chant and Morofsky (1992)
van Hove (1993)
Paksoy et al. (2009)
Vanhoudt et al. (2011)
Heating and cooling
Gas boiler and cooling machines
Ghaebi et al. (2017)
Gas boiler, compression chiller, ATES
Table 1 shows that several feasibility studies have already discussed the economics of ATES considering the capital costs, capacities and payback times. However, the majority of the studies only briefly summarised the economics of ATES. For instance, payback times and reference systems were rarely discussed together with an exception of the research from Vanhoudt et al. (2011) and Ghaebi et al. (2017). Unfortunately, the evaluation of the economic data is in most cases not transparent or already obsolete. In addition, the applied methods are hardly described and not sufficiently discussed for reconstruction. However, a comprehensive techno-economic and environmental evaluation is indispensable to convince governments and decision makers of the positive impacts of ATES in regions where it is not yet common. Thus, this study focuses on the techno-economic viability and environmental performance of a representative case. The municipal hospital in the city of Karlsruhe, Germany, was faced with the decision of either using LT-ATES or compression chillers for cooling and district heating for a new building complex. Although the geological and hydrogeological framework of the site shows a technical feasibility, the hospital administration finally decided against ATES. One reason for this decision was that the hospital wanted to reinject and store heat above the prescribed limit of 20 °C. However, the local water authorities adhered strictly to this limit. Hospitals in general have a great demand for an efficient and sustainable heating and cooling supply. The average heating demand per patient in German hospitals is 29 MWh. This is equivalent to the thermal energy demand of two modern single-detached family houses (Hendriks and Velvis 2012; viamedica 2009). Thus, the current energy supply technology consisting of compression chillers and district heating, further named as reference technology, is compared with the estimated economic performance and energy efficiency of ATES over an observation period of 30 years. The sensitivity of the various costs of the ATES components defining the capital costs is determined with a Monte Carlo simulation considering the uncertainties of the input parameters. Furthermore, a sensitivity analysis provides information about the most relevant parameters for the capital costs. The estimated environmental benefits of the studied ATES during operation are illustrated based on the annual CO2 savings per year. Finally, the results of the present study are compared with the economic performance of existing ATES systems.
Parameters defining the heating and cooling supply of the building
Heated floor space (m2)
Cooled floor space (m2)
Heating capacity (kW)
Cooling capacity (kW)
Space heating power demand (W/m2)
Space cooling power demand (W/m2)
Heating demand EDH (MWh)
Cooling demand EDC (MWh)
Aquifer Thermal Energy Storage (ATES) system
Design parameters of the considered ATES system
Well depth H
Screen length L
The thermal radii of cold and warm wells are 74 m and 33 m, respectively (Eq. 4). Thus, a minimum distance of 106 m is required. However, Dutch authorities ensure a distance of three times the thermal radius between the warm and cold wells (Bloemendal and Hartog 2018). Thus, a distance of 318 m is also considered. The expected operational lifetime of ATES is more than 30 years (Bloemendal et al. 2014; Hartog et al. 2013; Kalaiselvam and Parameshwaran 2014).
Figure 3 summarises the energy flows of the ATES system for heating and cooling. Depending on the COP of the heat pump, an average of 2856 (± 92) MWh or 78% of the heating demand, is covered by the thermal energy in the subsurface. The remaining energy is delivered by the heat pump. Since direct cooling is feasible with the ATES system, the amount of cold delivered from the aquifer is equivalent to the cooling demand of the building. As a consequence, the considered ATES has an energy balance ratio between heating and cooling of 0.25. In some European countries such as the Netherlands, the regulations require ATES systems to maintain the thermal balance between heating and cooling. However, this regulation does not yet exist in Germany. Thus, thermal imbalance can be assumed. Based on Eq. 3, tC and tH, the submersible pumps have an total electricity demand of 265 MWh for heating and cooling.
Capital costs of ATES system
Minimum, mode and maximum values for the Monte Carlo Simulation of the CATES
Site equipmenta, d
Transport drilling rige
Movement drilling riga, d
Sampling & core boxesa, d
Bore log & drilling profilea, e
Clear washing & pressure washingd
Well piping and well installation
Filter pipea, d, e
Solid wall pipee
Water chambera, e
Shaft covera, d
Clay seala, d
Stand pumpd, g
Controlling & Monitoring
Water flowmetera, f
Pump control systema, e
Site equipment monitoring wella, e
Movement drilling rig monit. wella, e
Drilling monitoring wellsa, e
Heat exchangerh, i
Current costs of ATES system
Input parameters to calculate the current costs of the ATES system
COP heat pump COP HP a, b
Electricity costs EC (ct/kWh)c
Maintenance MATES (%)d
Heating period tH (h)
Cooling period tC (h)
Parameters defining the capital and current costs of the district heating supply
Capital costs CDH
Excavation work (€/m)
Commodity price CP (ct/kWh)
Power price PP (€/kW)
Basic price BP (€)
Efficiency for consumer ηDH (%)i
Input parameters defining the capital costs CCCH and current costs CCCCH of the compression chillers
Capital costs CCCH (€/kW)a, b, c
COP compression chiller COP CCH b, g
Maintenance MCCH (%)h
Electricity costs EC (ct/kWh)i
The recommended depreciation period of a compression chiller is 15 years resulting in a replacement investment within the observation period of 30 years VDI 2067 (2012).
CATES are the capital costs of the ATES, Rt is the return at the time t, which results from the difference between the current costs of the ATES system and the reference technology. The investment in an ATES system is beneficial towards the investment in the reference technology if the net present value of the ATES system is positive.
CO2 emission factors for district heating and electricity
CO2 emission factor
Electricity (t/MWh)a, b
District heating (t/MWh)b, c
Capital costs of the ATES system
Summary of the estimated average capital and current costs and energy consumption of the ATES system and the reference technology
Capital costs (k€)
Electricity consumption (MWh)
District heating consumption (MWh)
Electricity costs (k€)
District heating costs (k€)
The estimated average seasonal performance factor (SPF) of the ATES system for heating is four and mainly influenced by the efficiency of the heat pumps. Since the hospital already has access to the district heating network of Karlsruhe, the economic burden of the capital costs and maintenance in relation to district heating, is relatively low. In contrast, the ATES system has extra costs for maintenance and replacement (Fig. 7, Table 9). The expected demand of district heating is over four times higher than the electricity demand of the ATES system for heating. This leads to potential mean energy cost savings of 179,000 € per year (Table 9). However, the economic benefit of ATES for heating is not always given due to the estimated low capital costs for district heating in the present case (see Fig. 8b). Thus, direct cooling provides most of the economic benefit of the ATES compared to the reference technology.
Table 6 and Fig. 8b show a large variation of the demand-related costs for district heating. Depending on region and provider, the district heating costs range between 285,000 € and 379,000 € for the same heating demand of 3685 MWh only in the state of Baden-Württemberg. Since the district heating network of Karlsruhe is partially supplied by industrial waste heat of the MiRO (57%), the city has a significant site-specific advantage. Consequently, the price for district heating is up to 25% less than in other regions, deeming the ATES system for heating uneconomical in Karlsruhe (Fig. 8b). However, the situation is the opposite in the city of Emmendingen where the district heating network is supplied by power plants operating with natural gas and wood chips (Stadtwerke Emmendingen 2019a). For this reason, the costs for district heating per year are almost 100,000 € higher than in Karlsruhe for the same heating demand of the hospital. Thus, the ATES system for heating shows a payback time of 5 years in Emmendingen. It is important to note that the district heating costs can vary greatly even within small distances. Hence, it is essential to conduct a detailed cost analysis of the reference technology particularly for locations where district heating is used. Another aspect is the future planning reliability with regard to the demand-related costs of the heating supply. The price for district heating can change rapidly within a short period of time. For example, in the city of Ulm, Germany, the commodity price for district heating varied by 27% in 1 year alone. Consequently, the economic planning of the future heat supply via district heating is more challenging than for systems driven by electricity. In general, ATES systems and heat supply via district heating do not automatically exclude each other. The city of Neubrandenburg, Germany integrated an ATES system in a district heating network. Here the waste heat of a power plant is stored in summertime and reinjected into the district heating network in wintertime to supply residential areas (Kabus et al. 2009). This special usage is only possible for high temperature ATES (HT-ATES) systems. Greater well depths ensure higher storage loading temperatures (e.g. 90 °C), which can supply district heating networks in Germany, typically operating with temperatures above 20 °C (Sanner 2000).
Comparison of the most important parameters defining the ATES system of the Klina hospital in Belgium and the ATES system of the present study
ATES present study
ATES Klina hospital
Capital costs (k€)
1258 (± 80)
Number of wells
Electricity costs (ct/kWh)
16.5 (± 0.5)
Energy demand (MWh)
Reference technology [heating costs (ct/kWh)]
District heating (8.83 (± 1.26))
Gas boiler (3.50)
Energy savings (%)
Energy demand (MWh)
Reference technology (COP)
Compression chillers (COP 5.0–7.0)
Cooling machines (SPF 3.5)
Energy savings (%)
The specific capital costs of the ATES in Belgium are 580 €/kW and 28% higher than the estimated specific capital costs in the present study. This is almost equivalent to the reverse ratio of the number of wells with two in Braasschat and six in the present study. This again confirms the large sensitivity of the well construction to the capital costs. In total, the ATES of the Klina hospital saves 85% of energy compared to gas boilers and cooling machines. This is 9% more than the ATES in the present study, mostly resulting from the lower estimated SPF of the reference cooling machines in Belgium. Assuming that the compression chillers of the present study have the same COP, the percentage share of saved energy (88%) by the ATES is almost equal to the Belgium ATES. This shows that the economic comparison in the present study between the ATES for cooling and the compression chillers is a rather conservative approach. Thus, ATES for cooling can potentially save even more energy compared to compression chillers resulting in an even better economic viability. However, the present study shows that even though the efficiency of compression chillers will improve in the future, ATES for cooling is still more economical. Despite larger relative savings of energy, the payback time of the ATES in Belgium is higher than the average payback time in the present study. This mainly results from the low heating costs of the reference gas boiler system, despite an efficiency of only 85% and the relatively high capital costs for this specific ATES system as shown in Fig. 9. Transferred to the heating demand of the hospital in the present study, the demand-related costs of gas boilers under Belgian conditions are 130,000 € (46%) lower compared to the district heating in Karlsruhe. Considering the current gas price in Karlsruhe of 5.2 ct/kWh (Stadtwerke Karlsruhe 2016), gas-driven heat pumps for ATES systems can also be considered from an economic perspective, however, not from a perspective of sustainability.
The design of an ATES system can deviate strongly from the approach of the present study depending on the local conditions. In contrast to the present study, the large imbalance between the extracted and reinjected heating and cooling energy can be a major issue in practice. The much larger cooling demand of the building (Table 1) can result in a successive temperature increase of the aquifer after some periods. This could lead to conflicts with water authorities or neighbouring installations as well as to a significant loss of efficiency, mainly in terms of direct cooling. If the aquifer temperature becomes insufficient for direct cooling, additional cooling machines must be activated which greatly increases the electricity consumption and demand-related costs of the system. To compensate for the larger amount of heat energy in the injection well as a result of the higher cooling demand, additional installations such as cooling towers, recooling plants, heat pumps or air handling units are used (Ghaebi et al. 2017; Kranz and Frick 2013; Paksoy et al. 2009; Vanhoudt et al. 2011). Another approach to achieve thermal balancing is night ventilation of a building. This reduces the cooling demand on the ATES which results in a decreased quantity of heat injection (Bozkaya and Zeiler 2019). However, most of these measures are related to additional expenses, which are not considered in the present study. In contrast to the present study, ambient temperatures and heating and cooling demands can vary within a short period of time. To comprehensively understand the impact of energy demand variations or hydrogeological changes in the subsurface on the economic performances of ATES, more simulations tools should be used in the future. Since ATES is a rather slow acting system, additional supply technologies also for peak loads are needed. Thus, buildings often partially use ATES in combination with compression and/or absorption chillers for cooling and boilers and/or CHP systems for heating (Holstenkamp et al. 2017; Kabus and Seibt 2000). Experience from other countries shows that adjustments from the authorities allow the number of LT-ATES installations to grow (Fleuchaus et al. 2018). In the Netherlands, a hospital similar to that in the present case is less restricted by authorities and would perhaps have decided otherwise. Future ATES projects can only be successfully implemented in Germany if the responsible house builder, technical building planners, building technicians, as well as public and local water authorities closely cooperate in the early stages of the planning process. Furthermore, an extensive and permanent system to monitor the subsurface installation and the building connection is an important factor of ATES systems ensuring the long-term and sustainable operation of the systems as it is assumed in the present study.
The relative CO2 savings for direct cooling compared to the compression chillers are equivalent to the energy savings. Both systems are driven by electricity and therefore have the same emission factor. Per m3 of pumped groundwater for direct cooling, approximately 0.27 kg of CO2 are saved. District heating has a low emission factor at the studied site and can therefore compete with renewable energies. Thus, the relative amount of saved energy does not always correlate with the percentage of CO2 savings. However, it is important to consider that the environmental evaluation excludes the CO2 emissions resulting from the heat sources of the district heating. A life cycle assessment (LCA) would provide a more detailed and comprehensive analysis about the potential environmental benefits of the ATES system. Depending on the replaced system and the emission factor, most of the ATES systems discussed in literature save around 60% of CO2 emissions during operation (Kabus and Seibt 2000; Paksoy et al. 2009). Based on the studied literature, ATES systems, which save less than 60% of CO2 emissions, are compared with reference technologies associated with a lower emission factor than the emission factor of electricity.
Considering the environmental damage caused by CO2 emissions, even more costs can be saved by the implementation of ATES. According to the Federal Environmental Agency, 1000 kg of emitted CO2 cause environmental damages of 180 € (Umweltbundesamt 2018). In the context of our results, the replacement of the reference technology with the ATES potentially reduces the environmental damages by 1.4 million € after 30 years of operation. Converted to the supplied energy in the present study, the ATES causes expected environmental damages of 0.007 ct/kWh, which is half the amount produced by wind energy (0.014 ct/kWh) and only a small fraction of the environmental damages of lignite-based electricity of 20.81 ct/kWh (Umweltbundesamt 2018).
Decision makers and stakeholders should be aware of the composition of the capital costs with the main expenses of 60% related to the underground section of the ATES system. The expected payback time of the present study (2.7 years) and of other ATES systems (less than 10 years) should raise the awareness of the potential economic benefits of ATES despite higher capital costs. The most efficient usage of ATES is for both the heating and cooling supply of a building. Thus, we recommend ATES operating as hybrid systems for heating and cooling particularly in countries where ATES is not yet common. However, since the economic competitiveness of ATES in regard to sustainable technologies has not yet been examined in detail, further comprehensive analyses are needed. In the long-term, the number of installed ATES will only increase, if there is an economic benefit, a higher reliability and a wide social acceptance compared to competing renewable technologies. In addition, further studies should be performed to fully understand the benefit of ATES towards open geothermal systems such as groundwater heat pump (GWHP) systems without active storage, which are already frequently used in Germany. For this reason, important parameters such as the ∆T as well as the different flow temperatures of the heat pumps between ATES and GWHP systems need to be studied in more detail. Additionally, monitoring and evaluation of ATES systems already in operation need to be improved and intensified with focus on injection and extraction temperatures, performance of the submersible pumps, volume flows, efficiency of the heat pumps as well as the efforts for maintenance. Thus, site-specific parameters instead of generic values could lead to a greater accuracy and better transparency of techno-economic analyses of ATES systems. Finally, as many large buildings are likely to require more cooling than heating, for example hospitals and data centres, the effects of larger cooling demands of buildings on the economics of ATES and associated preventing measures should be investigated.
ATES: Aquifer Thermal Energy Storage; BP: basic price (€); ca: volumetric heat capacity aquifer (MJ/m3K); C: capital costs (€); CAD: Canadian Dollar; CC: current costs (€); CCH: compression chiller; CCO: cooling costs (€); CE: CO2 emission per year (tCO2/year); CH: heating costs (€); CHP: combined heat and power; COP: coefficient of performance; CP: commodity price (ct/kWh); Cw: volumetric heat capacity water (MJ/m3K); DC: demand-related costs (€); DH: district heating; g: gravity (m/s2); E: electricity consumption (kWh, MWh); el: electricity; EC: electricity costs (ct/kWh); EDH: heating demand (kWh, MWh); EDC: cooling demand (kWh, MWh); EF: emission factor (t/MWh); g: gravity (m/s2); EUR: Euro; GSHP: ground source heat pump; h: delivery head (m); H: well depth (m); HP: heat pump; HT-ATES: high temperature ATES; i: discount rate; k: 1000; L: Screen length (m); LT-ATES: low-temperature ATES; M: maintenance; MiRO: mineral oil refinery; NLG: Gulden; NPV: net present value (€); OC: operation-related costs (€); P: power submersible pump (kW); PP: power price (€/kW); q: pumping rate (m3/h); qT: interest factor; Q: energy from ATES (kWh, MWh); R: replacement; Rth: thermal radius (m); Rt: return at time t; SPF: seasonal performance factor; t: time (s, h, d); ΔT: temperature difference (K); tH: heating period (h); tC: cooling period (h); T: payment date (a); USD: US-Dollar; V: volume of pumped groundwater (m3); VDI: Verein Deutscher Ingenieure.
ρ: density (kg/m3); η: efficiency.
SS, PF and PB developed the methodology and designed the study. SS carried out the data collection, the data analysis and prepared the draft of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
The authors would like to thank Roland Stindl environmental representative of the municipal hospital of Karlsruhe for providing us with helpful information about the hospital. The helpful comments of the two reviewers are also gratefully acknowledged.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
Availability of data and materials
The relevant datasets analysed in this study are all presented in the manuscript.
This study is funded through the funding programme BWPLUS by the Ministry of the Environment, Climate Protection and the Energy Sector Baden-Württemberg (Grant Number L7516014-16019).
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