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When Will Geothermal Energy Go Mainstream?

As governments worldwide encourage greater innovation in renewable energy beyond wind and solar power, with significant funding opportunities available, alternative green energy sources are popping up around the globe, having been long neglected. Despite the knowledge of a variety of renewable energy sources for several decades, most countries have focused on the low-cost sources that are easiest to produce. But the potential for many alternative energies is significant, requiring greater research and development to establish fruitful operations. One such power source is geothermal, with the potential to harness the power of the Earth's heat to produce abundant clean energy. Yet, overcoming the barriers of access - with the need to drill deep into the Earth's surface - has deterred many companies from investing in geothermal projects. Yet, both the EU and the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) have highlighted the significant potential for geothermal energy in supporting a transition to green. Now, French automaker Renault has announced it is betting big on the power source, but will others follow in its footsteps?

The EU has established an Implementation Working Group for deep geothermal (DG working group) to encourage greater investigation into geothermal energy in Europe, and to provide a clean heating and electricity source. The DG working group is overseeing the rollout of the Deep geothermal implementation plan (IP). DG believes that establishing a geothermal energy industry in Europe will support the achievement of the European Green Deal and the Horizon Europe goals, with a switch from fossil fuels to geothermal expected to help decarbonise up to 25 percent of the region's energy needs. It is also thought that with the existing technology, 25 percent of the European population can cost-effectively deploy geothermal heating.

European Commission (EC) research showed that geothermal energy could help Europe in its aim to become the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050. Geothermal energy is expected to contribute to Europe's green energy mix, supporting modernised district and communal heating systems and helping achieve the EU's 2022 REPowerEU Plan targets. The development of a geothermal industry is also expected to help advance other renewable energy operations, with the potential for mineral extraction from geothermal fluids to enable sustainable lithium production. Therefore, the EC is supporting several research projects into geothermal energy innovations that will help with Europe's green transition. 

Geothermal energy is generated by accessing underground heat pockets by drilling down into the surface of the Earth. Thermal energy can be accessed in the rocks and water just a few miles underground by drilling into underground reservoirs to tap into geothermal sources. The heat can then drive turbines for electricity production

Some projects have already been rolled out. For example, Croatia, which sits on top of an area of land with strong geothermal potential, has developed a geothermal plant, which stands out in the landscape due to its resemblance to a flying saucer. The hope is to establish a 24-hour supply of energy for a carbon-free electricity grid, providing the green print for future projects in neighbouring Austria, Hungary, and Serbia.

Marijan Krpan, the CEO of the Croatian Hydrocarbon Agency stated "There is a huge potential to generate a lot of electricity out of this. There is a huge potential for district heating. And there is a huge potential for agriculture." However, despite the growing interest in geothermal energy, it is still little talked about at the international level, with most governments and energy firms continuing to invest heavily in wind and solar power. But this might be set to change.

In November, the automaker Renault announced it would be partnering with French utility Engie for the next 15 years to develop and run a geothermal project at its Douai facility. Drilling operations are expected to commence in 2023, with plans to extract hot water at a depth of 4,000 meters. The work is expected to meet the industrial and heating process needs by as early as 2025, with water temperatures between 130 and 140oC. Renault stated that "Once implemented, this geothermal technology would provide a power of nearly 40 MW continuously." In addition, "In summer, when the need for heat is lower, geothermal energy could be used to produce carbon-free electricity," it added.

But will this encourage other companies to follow in its footsteps? The once little-talked-about energy source is gradually gaining traction, especially as major political powers such as the EU and the U.S. provide funding for innovative geothermal solutions. But it may require a greater number of major private energy, automotive, and industry players to publicly make the move for others to understand the potential of geothermal and invest in this green energy source. 

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK. More