It was a July night in 1904 in Larderello, Italy, in southern Tuscany. As dusk approached and families, one imagines, sat down for a typical dinner of bistecca al fiorentina, rosticciana and deep-fried corgettes, lights were being turned on all over the region.
This is a story about five of those lights – for they were powered by steam emerging from nearby vents in the ground.
It was the first – and perhaps still the most practical – demonstration of geothermal power.
Years later, in 1911, in an area known as Valle del Diavolo (“Devil’s Valley”), the world’s first geothermal power plant was built in Larderello.
These two developments started if not a trend then at least a promise for powering Europe.
It is now almost a hundred years since that plant was built – one hundred years, and the devil, at least as it pertains to geothermal energy in Europe, is still in the details.
Not long ago only specialized groups of geoscientists talked much about geothermal energy, even though, as they often said, it is quite literally the energy below our feet.
Today, geothermal is an increasingly hot topic around the world.
“The United States is the largest producer worldwide of electricity generated from geothermal energy (2,544 MWe installed capacity in 2005 generating,17,840 GWh/y) and has the greatest installed capacity for direct use,” said AAPG member Joel Renner, who also is chair of the EMD Geothermal Committee.
Italy leads European production with790 MWe and 5430 GWh/y, Renner said, and Germany and Austria produce 1.5 and 3.2 GWh/y, respectively. Iceland reports 202 Mwe and 1406 GWh/y. Increased interest in geothermal potential is, on one hand, easy to understand; unlike conventional sources, it can be found everywhere.
But like conventional sources, the problem is how to harness it, how to mollify its critics, and how to change a society’s perception of it.
Renner, who is with the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory in Idaho Falls and has written extensively about the geothermal possibilities in Europe, says that the continent has some built-in advantages.
“European activities, particularly the German developments, are aided by large subsidies for renewable energy,” he said.
One such project is an area near Munich, a comprehensive study of water-bearing formations in the Upper Jurassic, from between 3,000 and 3,800 meters. Some experts believe this region in the Molasse Basin, between the Danube and the Alps, is central Europe’s largest geothermal energy reservoir for providing and generating electricity.
Renner added that developments are not just occurring in Germany and Italy (still far and away Europe’s biggest producer of geothermal energy) but other countries as well.
“In Europe, primarily France and Germany have led in development oftechnology to utilize hydraulic stimulation of hot rocks with little natural permeability to produce geothermal energy,” he said.
(The technology is referred to as enhanced geothermal systems, or EGS, and the U.S. Departmentof Energy has re-directed its geothermal research program to similar studies and hopes to have power from EGS online in several years.)
Geothermal activity also “is ongoing in both Poland and Hungary,” he said, “and some interest in Greece.”
There was activity in and around Bern, Switzerland, Renner said, until the hydraulic stimulation induced a small earthquake. The same induced seismicity also has delayed a planned power production test at Soultz, as well.
The increased potential of seismic activity appears to be the biggest concern with the exploration of geothermal.
“The foremost sensitivity,” Renner said, “is induced-seismicity associated with geothermal systems that need to be stimulated, generally by hydraulic stimulation, to achieve sufficient productivity.
“The visual aspects are minor, and since most European sites are not associated with surface manifestations such as geysers the impact is low,” he said. “Surface manifestations such as geysers and hot springs may be affected by over-production of geothermal resources.”
He adds that geothermal in places like Italy, even Larderello, may produce H2S but “it can be mitigated.”
Reasons for Support
Renner can’t say how much geothermal potential Europe holds, but in terms of providing heat, 920,000 Europeans were powered by geothermal in 1999, according to the European Geothermal Energy Council.
The conference projected that this number could increase to 12 million by the year 2020.
“Today, geothermal power plants exist on every continent, at any place were reservoirs of steam or hot water can be found,” he said. “They produce, with conventional technology, 820 MW of electric power in the EU, around the clock.”
Specifically, some of the benefits of geothermal include:
- The earth is full of energy – Virtually any temperature level in the underground can be used directly. Presently, through deep boreholes, almost 4,500 MWth already are installed in Europe – just a small fraction of what is possible.
- It’s lucrative – Literally, everyone is standing on it and it will provide heat and power 24 hours a day throughout the year – everywhere.
- Environmental concerns –It contributes to the reduction of CO2.
- Aesthetically pleasing –Geothermal projects have low visual impact, meaning its footprint is unobtrusive and can be hidden beneath the ground.
- Reliability – It’s not dependent on climate conditions, and it is a safe and controlled technology.
- One size fits all – Geothermal is an answer to electric power, heating, cooling, hot water.
Of course, realizing geothermal’s full power and potential still may be a long way from fruition.
Noted scientist Immanuel Friedlander said of it:
“I believe that in time to come the greatest of all sources of power will be found in the subterranean storehouses of volcanic regions, where the internal heat of the earth can be reached at a relatively shallow level. The limited supplies of coal and oil in the earth will be exhausted in the comparatively near future. The waterpower available in rivers is already to a large extent taken up. Water-power from the tides will probably prove costly to utilize, and the same is likely to be true of any method now in sight of using direct solar energy … On the other hand, no insurmountable obstacles seem to exist to tapping the earth’s internal heat on a vast scale.”
He said this in 1928.