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Belgian investors with big plans for geothermal development

Grote Markt of Antwerp, Belgium (source: flickr/ carlbcampbell, creative commons)
Alexander Richter Alexander Richter 17 Jun 2019

With investment plans of up to EUR 230 million, Belgian investors plan big geothermal development drive for combined power and heat production with a spin-off of VITO, called Hita.

As reported last week, Belgian entrepreneurs are investing EUR 3.8 million (USD 4.3m) in Hita, a spin-off from the VITO research institute. Over the next ten years, it wants to develop ten geothermal power plants for a total amount of EUR 230 million (USD 260m)  and the heating of 400,000 homes.

The planned geothermal power stations will together produce 600,000 megawatt hours of green energy. That is enough to heat 40,000 homes and provide an additional 15,000 with electricity. 140,000 tons less CO2 is emitted every year.

Only the drillings and the associated infrastructure require a substantial initial investment of several million and a lot of knowledge. This knowledge has been available for some time at the Flemish Institute for Technological Research (VITO), which has been experimenting with deep geothermal energy (geothermal heat) in Mol since 2013. The well that has been drilled there supplies energy to the Belgian Nuclear Research Center (SCK), Belgoprocess and VITO itself. That is an equivalent of 1,500 homes.

Now the first millions have also arrived. Three Kempen entrepreneurs, Vic Swerts from the silicone mastodont Soudal, Jan Tormans from the engineering company of the same name and Paul Lauwers from the door and window producer Profel are investing EUR 3.8 million in Hita – Icelandic for “heat”. Hita is a newly established spin-off from VITO that has to cash in on the knowledge gained about deep geothermal energy.

Over the next ten years, the development company wants to develop and market ten geothermal power stations, representing a total investment of EUR 230 million. That amount only applies to the geothermal power stations (the pump installation and a giant heat exchanger), not yet to the heat network itself.

Once you have a power station, it supplies energy for 25 to 30 years at a stable price. You can’t say that about natural gas.

The power stations together produce 600,000 MWh of green energy, in line with the energy bill of the previous Flemish government. That is enough to heat 40,000 homes and provide an additional 15,000 with electricity. As a result, 140,000 tons less CO2 is emitted every year.

“It’s up to us to get those financial and technical partners together,” says Geert De Meyer, Hita’s CEO. “We are going to study the technical feasibility of each project, draw up a business plan, obtain the necessary permits, get a guarantee scheme (insurance) in place, arrange consultations with local authorities and receive subsidies. So in the first instance we are not going to put the money on the table ourselves for the construction of a plant, but we do want to develop a new industrial sector for geothermal energy in Flanders. ”

The commercialization of deep geothermal energy is a first for Belgium. Until now, in addition to the VITO pilot project, there is only a well that is owned by the town of Saint-Ghislain. Janssen Pharma is also preparing a project in Beerse. In the neighboring countries it is much further: part of Paris has been heated with geothermal heat since the 1950s and in Berlin 1.2 million families are connected to a district heating network (though not geothermal). Over the past ten years, the Netherlands has developed what Hita wants to achieve in the next ten years.

“The big advantage of deep geothermal energy is that, in contrast to sun and wind, it can continuously deliver energy,” says De Meyer, who has been working on matter at VITO since 2013. “A power station runs up to 8,000 hours a year. The intention is to provide large heat users, such as hospitals, schools and swimming pools, with heat. Outside the city centers, new residential areas to be built are also eligible, which then do not get a natural gas network. Geothermal energy is primarily a substitute for gas heating. Electricity generation is also possible, but then the water must be hot enough (at least 115 degrees) to drive a turbine. ”

Turnhout

De Meyer is optimistic about a first Hita power station in the Turnhout region, which should run in five years. “The cards are good. The city has included deep geothermal energy and heat networks in its policy document. We know from test drilling that the aquifers in the area are large enough. This reduces the investment risk. We also hold discussions with the city council and with Fluvius, the merger company of Eandis and Infrax, which may want to develop heat networks in addition to gas and electricity. ”

For the investing entrepreneurs, it is partly a long-term investment and partly a social commitment. “From the very beginning, I was interested in the potential of deep geothermal energy,” says Vic Swerts, the 79-year-old founder and owner of Soudal, who personally invests EUR 1.3 million and is chairman of Hita. “Drilling for miles into the Kempen soil and then pumping up hot water as an energy source appeals to the imagination. We can do something with this company for society and for Soudal itself. ”

It is about risk capital, De Meyer does not want to bother about that. “It is never certain whether a borehole, which will easily cost EUR 5 million anyway, will deliver the expected temperature or flow. We are not going to make a profit in the first few years, but once there is a power station, it supplies 25 to 30 years of continuous energy at a stable price. You can’t say that about natural gas. ”

Source: De Tijd