Italy top geothermal producer

Europe Takes a Look at ‘Steam’

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

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.

The Europeans

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.

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Mike Sullivan, instructor of Geothermal Energy Basics
Mike Sullivan, instructor of Geothermal Energy Basics

Geothermal Courses Still Available

A new AAPG online course called “Geothermal Energy Basics: A Renewable Energy Certificate Course” was launched in September for those looking to learn about current trends, technologies and applications of geothermal energy – particularly as integrated with oil and gas.

The course is taught by Mike Sullivan, with Groundwater Services International in Harrisburg, Pa.

The four-session course is offered on the first of each month; participants can sign up at any time and begin the full program.

That program includes:

  • Unit 1 –Scientific and Technology.
  • Unit 2 – Exploration and Development.
  • Unit 3 – Investment Models and Benefits.
  • Unit 4 – Integration Techniques.

AAPG also offered an online live e-symposium in August titled “Geothermal Energy in the Oil Field: Development and Opportunities” – but you can still take advantage of the program that was presented.

The event was recorded and archived, so those who missed the live offering can register now, get a link to review the webinar, get the course materials plus supplemental readings and still earn CEUs.

EMD Web Offers Geothermal Insights

AAPG’s Energy Minerals Divisionoffers many opportunities to learn about or be active in the area of geothermal energy research and development.

Joel Renner is chair of the EMD Geothermal Committee, which has a separate Web page devoted to information and contacts. The site can be found at technical_areas/geothermal.cfm.

Below are excerpts from the site.

Geothermal energy refers to thermal or electrical power produced from the thermal energy contained in the Earth ...

Some granitic rocks in the upper crust contain abnormally high concentrations of radioactive elements resulting in enhanced heat flow towards the Earth’s surface. Advective heat flow, associated with the movement of magma and hot water in the subsurface, can be superimposed on the regional conductive-type of heat flow resulting in very high temperatures near the Earth’s surface. These areas are the primary targets for geothermal exploration and development.

Although geothermal energy is present everywhere beneath the Earth’s surface, this energy must be concentrated to be an effective power source. Conversion of geothermal energy into power is possible only when:

  • Located at shallow drilling depths, usually less than three kilometers, but possibly as deep as six to seven kilometers.
  • Economics are improved at shallow depths where drilling costs are lowered.
  • Porosity and fracture permeability are sufficiently high to produce large quantities of thermal waters.
  • The hot geothermal fluids can be efficiently transported (typically less than a few tens of kilometers) to a power generating facility.

The accessible geothermal resource base in the United States at depths less than seven kilometers is estimated to be 17,200,000 x 1018 joules, although this estimate reflects the large volume of rock involved rather than actual recoverable resources. The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated identified and undiscovered convection hydrothermal resources in the United States to be 2,400 x 1018 joules, which is the energy equivalent to 430 x 109 barrels of oil.

Additionally, resource estimates for geothermal-geopressured parts of the northern Gulf of Mexico range from 270 x 1018 to 2,800 x 1018 joules.

The use of geothermal energy may increase in other countries as other sources of energy are depleted and become more expensive, and as additional information is collected on the geometry of individual geothermal systems.

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