The Race for Alternative Energy Sources: New Geothermal Projects in Europe

LONDON - 28 July 2008 - In the race to find alternative energy sources, geothermal energy is gaining favour. Geothermal energy is a continuous source of energy since the heat is trapped inside the earth, without depleting. This places geothermal energy above sporadic wind and solar energy, which tends to have a capacity factor of only 20-35%; geothermal capacity is more than 70%.

Although global energy use from geothermal sources today only amounts to less than 1%, geothermal projects now exist in around 20 countries around the world.

Frost & Sullivan attributes its previously limited use to the high start-up costs.  However, with the steep price increases of oil and gas emission concerns, geothermal energy is generating greater interest everywhere. This coupled by the fact that geothermal costs are decreasing, as traditional energy sources are increasing in prices, leads researchers to believe geothermal energy will play a greater role in the global quest for alternative energy.

Geothermal energy is produced from using the earth's burning center to generate heat and electricity.  “Geothermal energy has several advantages when compared to other renewable energy sources as well as carbon-emitting fuels. The sector is something to watch out for in the next few years,” notes Frost & Sullivan analyst, Gouri Nambudripad.  A clear advantage of geothermal energy is that the heat is trapped inside the earth, without depleting, and is therefore a continuous source of energy.  This places geothermal energy above sporadic wind and solar energy, which tends to have a capacity factor of only 20-35%.  Geothermal capacity is more than 70%.  In some areas, it is almost competitive with conventional fuels.  Another advantage is that geothermal energy does not produce any toxic waste.

The only major impediment to geothermal energy success is the high cost of setting up and drilling the hot water from under the surface of the earth. The prices are comparable to drilling in the oil and gas industry. However, research shows costs are dropping. The generation costs of geothermal electricity used to be 50 - 150 euros/MWh in 2005. This is expected to fall to 40 - 100 euros/MWh in 2010 and 40 - 80 euros/MWh in 2020.  As geothermal energy becomes more affordable, interests continue to rise.

Already in the EU, geothermal plants are found in Iceland, Greece, Italy, Turkey, Germany and Austria. The potential areas for geothermal generation capacity are in the north western and central western coast of Italy, western part of Turkey, and parts of Portugal, Spain, France and Germany. In Iceland, 85% of all houses are heated using geothermal energy and 30% of all their electricity is geothermal energy.  Italy's geothermal market is maturing with installed capacity expected to increase to 1200MWe - 1500MWe by 2020.  Most recently, Germany has close to 150 plants with €4bn in the pipe line.  Germany is stimulating the industry by passing laws in favour of making projects financially viable. Geothermal energy grows more promising as its advantages begin to outweigh its high implementation costs.  This will be an interesting market to follow in the next few years.

Geothermal heat was recognized first by the hot springs ancient cultures enjoyed at various hot spots around the world.  Its capability to produce electricity came to light by Italian Prince Piero Ginori Conti, almost a century ago. Since then, as technology and understanding increased, two specific methods of creating energy have enabled people to generate both heat and electricity.

One method, Engineered Geothermal Systems (EGS), produces energy by drilling two parallel lines into the center of the earth.  One line pumps water into the earth to heat it up to about 200°C, while the other line is used to pump out the hot water and steam.  The steam is used to run a turbine, while the hot water heats houses or industrial units.

The second system, the Organic Rankine Cycle, builds wells, deep into the hot reserves, separating the steam from the high pressure, hot water.  The steam and hot water are separated, split and used to drive turbines in power plants.  Once this geothermal fluid is cooled, it goes back into the reservoir, where it reheats and is ready to be used again.

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