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Geothermal Power in Germany

by DoDo Mon Aug 15th, 2005 at 08:17:41 AM EST

Promoted by Colman

Last week in Landau/Rhineland-Pfalz state, drilling started for (if I counted them all) the seventh commercial-scale deep geothermal power plant in Germany. When the 3 km bore and the machinery upon it starts service in 2007, 150°C water will power a turbine at 2-2.5 MW, and (through a secondary circuit) supply heat to local homes at 8 MW.

Time for a short look at this underestimated form of regenerative energy.

Geothermal energy is technically available at a lot more places than commonly assumed1.

Among alternative energies, the advantages of geothermal are constant power for electricity production (3500 plants with 10 MW each would suffice to give all of the German baseload), and the ability to replace gas & heating oil in building heating (wind or photovoltaic (PV) solar cells can't)2. Its disadvantage is that it is still rather expensive, about 3-5 times the market price (but less than PV)3.

I note that at Landau, drilling is done by Oil & Gas Exploration Company Jaslo Ltd., a Polish company.

  1. The potential just along the Upper Rhine fault line in Germany is currently estimated at 28,000 TWh electricity - 50 times the entire annual German demand, transmission losses included. (This older study (pdf!) puts the potential in all of Germany at ten times of that.)
  2. Indeed in Germany, there are also about a dozen geothermal plants that produce only heat.
  3. The German feed-in tariff for geothermal is (depending on size: less for bigger ones) 7.16-15 c/kWh. My 3500 plants would cost €250 billion to build.
By the way, two other alternative energy news from Germany.

First, newly released data show that in the first half of 2005, alternative energies rose to 31 TWh, 11% more than a year ago and also 11% of total production. (More than half of this is wind, most of the rest hydropower, but by now PV has to be non-neglible too.) Not much compared to, say, Denmark or Sweden, but impressive for a major industrial country.

Second, while I'm a biofuel sceptical and others at EuroTrib were strong critics (best by DeAnander here), I report anyway that now 12% (=14,000 km²) of the total agricultural area is used to grow energy crops.

How long before the disaster movie showing one of these wells getting out of control and spewing lava everywhere, requiring Tom Cruise to rescue his estranged aunt from a burning SUV and sparking an anti-geothermal movement?
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Aug 15th, 2005 at 06:52:40 AM EST
I am somewhat sceptical of all the promises geothermal power has been given here. I have fairly old study by EU where geothermal power was studied and its result were not as rosy as those predicted here. However, geothermal power has its uses and at least it offers a very potential local energy source. Probably better understanding of economics at scale will be available when more geothermal plants are installed.

Real but not too sexy alternative is use of small-scale heat pumps. Sweden has plenty of them installed and it is catching interest in other nordic countries too. The advantage lies in cheap and small scale compared to massive projects traditional geothermal systems require. I personally believe that heat pumps will have tremendous growth in next few years.

The heat generation is soon becoming the primary deal for geotheraml power. The heat pumps are best for that as they save tremendously in heat generation for houses (and thus in heating energy bills). This is the reason why heat generation with geothermal is rising rapidly (and has already achieved EU 2010 targets). So, if you look at the geothermal power generation, you looking at "old tech" :)

The 11% is not too shabby and within expectations (in 2003 some 8.98% of German primary energy generation was produced with renewable sources). Ofcourse there are always fluctuation with hydropower (depends on annual weather). The 2010 EU goal for Germany was 12.5% I think.

I am also somewhat sceptical at biofuel as sole replacement but I have seen both numbers and economic case for biofuel generation for EU and it does work on level of few percentages of total fuel bill. Anything more than that requires drastic changes to to way agriculture works so they are not realistic in EU level.

There is a chance for technological breakthrough. There are test factories for wood material based biofuel generation and if it works, the agriculture and forestry industry waste could be recycled. The economic logic lies in idea that since the operators and infrastructure already works, the waste is simply recycled alongside normal facilities to create fuel. It might be next step in biofuels but I've not seen real calculations on wood material based gasefication processes. It might shave off few more percentages of fuel consumption if process actually works (based on back of envelope economic calculations I've seen).

by Nikita on Mon Aug 15th, 2005 at 08:36:39 AM EST
Well, what do you call "rosy"!

You (and, if I recall the same study, the EU) seem to focus on the economic angle, and that 3-to-5-times market price I wrote about is not at all rosy - in free-market terms. Medium-term expectations of price decreases as the technology enters series-production stage are still way above market prices, too.

However, as I gave ample indications at EuroTrib that I am not at all a free-market enthusiast, in this case too I would favor choosing an expensive solution - for the environmental benefit. I take global warming that seriously.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Aug 15th, 2005 at 08:46:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for the info. I did some research on geothermal a couple of years ago, when we were preparing our investment strategy in renewable energies, ans here are some tidbits:

There are 3 kinds of geothermal energy:

  • heat pumps (below 100°C)- for heat only. Warm water is found in some rock formations 1000-2500m deep, and can be used directly, or thorugh a heat exchanger. This is a really cheap form of energy when available (costs less than 1cEUR/kWh, i.e. a third of what the cheapest electricity currently costs)

  • medium temperatures (100-250°C) - Warm water found in specific rock formations again, either below 1000m deep or in the 2000-4000m range. Can be used for heat in collective systems

  • high temperatures - 1500 to 3000°C steam reservoirs (with or without water) usually found in volcanic areas or at the border of tectonic plaques. Used for heat or electricity generation. Dry steam can be used directly tyo generate electricity.

Geothermal is very reliable (permanent availability), but can be technically tricky (managing the very high temperature and pressure makes for tough drilling conditions). Its impact on the environment is negligible and emissions are very low.

The world leaders are the USA, Italy and the Philippines, where enough cost effective sites (typically 3-6cEUR/kWh cost for electricity generation) were found. I don't really know about the availability of more expensive sites, but if there are massive "reserves" available at 3-5 times current costs (presumably 10-20cEUR/kWh), that would make it a serious contender for reasonably cheap electricity if we go into crisis mode. (Wind costs 4-7cEUR/kWh.

DoDo- a small correction. I seriously doubt that Germany's base load is only 35 GW. France's is more like 50 or 60.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Aug 15th, 2005 at 09:20:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
No, the number is correct. The difference may be partially down to France's much higher per capita consumption, in part down to differing definitions, in part down to a differing power generation structure.

I translated "Grundlast" to 'baseload', a literal translation, tough AFAIK the latter is used to mean pre-planned power generation rougly following an expected consumption curve, while the former (again AFAIK) is used to mean a steady flat power that supplies the minimal electricity need.

The total generating capacity in Germany is above 100 GW, and total annual generation is just above 600 TWh - i.e. an average power of 70 GW.

BTW, thanks for your additions on geothermal! As it looks, these new, now also electricity generating plants in Germany are in your second category. (Some of them are actually conversions of older, heating-only plants.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Aug 16th, 2005 at 05:13:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Cold reality in heat business is that you can and should always carry out R&D all the time. But it is also reality that if it costs considerably more than chaper dirty alternative, it is all for nothing as it cannot be effectively utilized.

The real reason why all this stuff works is that the steps done are all slightly more expensive than alternative, i.e. tolerable level. A good example of break through is wind, where technology made it possible for it to work in tolerably higher costs than coal (the difference is now almost nothing). So yes, it all starts and ends with economic factors (which is why I admire EU's very rational strategies with alternative energy sources).

Ofcourse, the economic factors can also be thrown out of window when it is absolutely necessary to national survival. For example Third Reich and South Africa created fuel (oil) out of coal because they had no choice no matter the cost. Same technology is still available for use in case of emergencies. For example China is right now building similar oil factories (obviously to ensure minimum necessary oil production) while EU has not done such a move. EU's current choice of strategy has been diversification of suppliers.

There is a weakness in EU's energy strategy in sense that while it has been realistic it has also been somewhat uncapable of following breakthrough in some renewable energy technologies. For example if you look at size of wind power vis a vis projections it is obvious that wind allready has fullfilled what was "realisticly" expected for entire renewable energy sector by 2030. Time for a new EU energy strategy anyone?

by Nikita on Mon Aug 15th, 2005 at 02:33:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
BTW, as far as I can tell, 2004 was an average year after a bad year for German hydropower.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Aug 15th, 2005 at 09:10:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What about geological stability?  In Sonoma, California water is injected into thermal drill holes that have been depleted of hot water.  There has been concern that this practice causes fissures in rock and may cause minor earthquakes.

I am thinking about the Rhine fault and the notion that Germany would try to obtain all its baseload from geothermal drilling there.

Perhaps this concern is a nonissue.

When is Germany going to do something about shutting down its coal plants? They are emitting far more radioactivity than its nuclear plants and greenhouse gases as well. I understand 50% of Germany's electricity is from coal combustion.

by Plan9 on Mon Aug 15th, 2005 at 10:22:01 AM EST
Many people are unaware that San Francisco gets most of its electricity from a gigantic geothermal source nearby. It's around 1000 MW, which is BIG.

Also note that geothermal energy is not formally "renewable" because eventually the local temperature is pulled down. Iceland and New Zealand have to continually manage this problem as older heat supplies fail. The Geysers site near San Francisco used to provide 2000 MW, but it's cooled off...


by asdf on Mon Aug 15th, 2005 at 12:25:01 PM EST
Good point!

However, I think that's more a problem with close-to-surface natural hot-water aquifiers, if they are over-used; not with deep shafts where rock heats the water. (In hot dry-rock (HDR) shafts, water supplied from the surface.) On the other hand, the German potential in the estimate I linked includes deep hot aquifiers, so the sustainable part might be 'only' 300 times the present German demand.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Aug 16th, 2005 at 05:21:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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