When it comes to geothermal energy, Germany is feeling the heat – literally and figuratively – beneath its feet.
According to the head of the German Geothermal Association, “Geothermal sources could supply Germany’s electricity needs 600 times over.”
Werner Bussmann, the organization’s CEO, added, “Geothermal electricity has the advantage of being available 24 hours a day, 8,000 hours a year, and this makes it a great source of baseload power.”
This is exciting news, for in 2004, only 0.4 percent Germany’s total primary energy supply came from geothermal sources.
Two factors have largely attributed to the boom in geothermal, both in actual power plants being constructed and in overall interest in the country’s energy sector:
As mentioned, geothermal power had up to this point been only an insignificant part of Germany’s electricity mix.
There are special challenges to geothermal in Germany that require unique technology, because unlike Iceland, Italy or Indonesia, Germany does not have volcanic activity or the dry steam reservoirs needed to produce electricity directly.
And in urban areas like Munich, there are special challenges.
“The specific difference,” Hildebrandt said of the challenges in exploring for geothermal in urban areas, “is the special protection of narrow building density. You have to reduce the vibrator peak force. You have to pick the vibrator points with special care to infrastructure like service pipes.
“A special attention will be needed for safety clearance distance,” he continued. “To ensure that buildings will not be damaged by seismics you have to measure and monitor the emission of vibration within the buildings. The layout of the measuring cables need more attention because of high-density traffic. And, at least, there are different problems to solve in traffic routing and safety.”
Specifically, roads and working platforms have to be constructed so that exploratory and production equipment can be brought in, which can adversely affect local plants and wildlife.
Once the drilling begins, further damage can ensue, as the deep well passes through some underground water bodies, which can be contaminated by drilling fluid. Increased temperature of the area can kill life forms in the water. Moreover, mud disposal is another consideration, as are the gases in the geothermal fluid – including carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, methane, sodium chloride (salt), boron, arsenic and mercury – and hot water can leak into surrounding areas and threaten the ecosystem.
Another hurdle, as it is in every form of exploration, is money and technology.
Before the geothermal plants can be built – and the lifespan of them is about 30 years – there has to be enough of the proper drilling equipment available to reach the aforementioned hotter water needed for electricity generation. And right now there isn’t enough equipment available.
As such, this deficiency is increasing the price of geothermal power plants. Equipment to build the plan counts for approximately 60 percent of its cost, or between 30 and 40 million euros (approximately $50-60 million). Bussman says these costs have doubled in the last three to four years.
Another area of great concern – maybe the major concern – is whether the boreholes themselves, which can cost up to $5 million, will bring sufficient hot water to the surface to make the specific geothermal project a financial and energy success.
Unfortunately, until a borehole has been completed it’s impossible to tell how much geothermal water can be extracted. That’s a big if for investors.
What some in Germany have suggested is for the government to set up a fund that would help insure investors from these bore holes not coming to fruition. Such a fund, proponents advocate, would be privatized as soon as the number of projects has increased and there is more data at hand.
Still, to many, geothermal is not only the brightest star out there, it is the only one out there.
Doug Heffernan, CEO of Mighty River Power Ltd., from New Zealand’s No. 3 power retailer, said, “Geothermal is going into a renaissance age. It’s the only reliable renewable.”
Germany apparently agrees.