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Discussing the sustainability of geothermal development in Tuscany in recent roundtable

Bagnore 3 plant, Tuscany, Italy (source: Enel Green Power)
Alexander Richter 14 May 2018

A recent regional roundtable in Tuscany, Italy, discussed the issue of sustainability of further geothermal energy utilisation in the region highlighting the need for better communication and understanding challenges.

On the occasion of 200 years of industrial geothermal Larderello in Tuscany and in particular, the Institute of geosciences and earth resources of the National Research Council (CNR-Igg) and Enel Green Power, organized on 7 and 8 May, a celebratory event on geothermal, with the sponsorship of the Italian geothermal Union (Ugi), the Consortium for the development of geothermal areas (CoSviG), the European Geothermal Energy Council (EGEC) and Geothermal Network, in addition to the participation of the Dgs-Unmig of the Ministry of Economic Development.

The first day, occupied entirely by an open-door conference in the auditorium of the Research Area of the Cnr of Pisa, ended with a high-level round table that gave the opportunity to discuss and explore the theme of the sustainable use of geothermal [energy resources]: under the moderation of the geologist Mario Tozzi (CNR) – participants were Alessandro Sbrana (University of Pisa), Romano Giglioli (University of Pisa), Adele Manzella (President Ugi), Loredana Torsello (CoSviG), Aurelio Cupelli (Geothermal network) and Riccardo Basosi (University of Siena).

Two main issues emerged from the comparison: on the one hand the urgent need for more and better communication on geothermal, and on the other the need to develop this renewable source in a way shared with the territories, promoting the best technologies within a complex context that requires to cross many factors (current and future energy demand, decarbonisation, emission impacts, land consumption, territorial vocations, etc).

For example, according to Giglioli and Sbrana if there is demand to significantly increase the share of renewable electricity produced – and the source that most characterizes Tuscany is undoubtedly geothermal, already today able to meet  30.78% of the regional electric demand – one must continue to develop high enthalpy geothermal resources (e.g. with temperatures above 180 ° C) ; this of course does not mean that the technologies that allow the zeroing of liquid and gaseous emissions (such as in binary cycle plants, which can produce electricity with medium enthalpy geothermal resources) are not suitable for the Tuscan context, but which use them in order to produce high quantities of electricity could result in a high number of installations – with consequent increase in land consumption.

Also, no detriment to the undoubted advantages inherent in the total elimination of emissions promised by the binary facilities, so much so that Basosi has underlined to believe a lot in the development, also in Tuscany, of these technologies: «The research world has a great responsibility – highlighted the Sienese academic – if geothermal becomes cleaner, it will also be more socially acceptable ».

The improvements achieved so far by plants already present in Tuscany (think of the introduction of AMIS blast chillers) should reassure the positive development of the technologies over the years, but often they do not appear adequately perceived.

With regard to the links between health and geothermal, for example, all the investigations carried out so far in Tuscany (in particular  the two coordinated by the Regional Health Agency ) did not find evidence of causality between the production of electricity from geothermal energy and an increase in mortality rates (also the frequently quoted 2014 study signed by Basosi and Bravi  does not show “any evidence of human health hazards due to geothermal energy”, also because neither Basosi nor Bravi tackles the theme). Mortality rates which, among other things, show historically different trends between the traditional geothermal area and the Amiata area, the only Tuscan areas where there are geothermal power plants: in the first case the mortality rates are even lower than the Tuscan average, between the best in the world, while, in the Amiatino case, while regaining above-average values, a regression has been observed in recent years.

But how correct are we representing these real issues, emerging from scientific studies?

“In my opinion – noted Manzella, president of Ugi as well as CNR’s first researcher – communication efforts of the industry are flawed, we promote geothermal to the population but we listen little to the territory: and while we are improving we must continue. We also fail on communication within the geothermal community, when instead unified messages are needed “; something also highlighted by Cupelli. In fact, the need for a broader ability to create a system among the actors involved in geothermal activities on the territory appears to be widespread among the speakers. Territory which in turn calls for more sharing, a need that already finds important levers at its disposal.

«CoSviG – commented on the merits Loredana Torsello, head of the International Projects of the Consortium for the development of geothermal areas – is a consortium whose capital is wholly owned by the Municipalities of the Tuscan geothermal areas, and has thirty years experience in project management and initiatives derived from the use of the economic contributions resulting from geothermal production. Today the Consortium, as the operational arm of the local partners and the Tuscany Region, plays an even more active role in the initiatives aimed at socio-economic development and meeting the sustainability criteria, in balance between quality of life, conservation and enhancement of the environmental heritage and cultural and new technologies “.

A model that has found new life in the General Agreement on Geothermal Energy of 2007, signed in order to benefit local populations (to the 16 Tuscan geothermal municipalities are annually over EUR 30 million) but also to improve the environmental impact of industrial activities .

“Making good communication on these issues – added Torsello – is fundamental but today extremely difficult, in recent years both the context and the tools have changed. It is a daily job that must be spent on the territories, bringing the citizens on a ground for sharing interests, and from this point of view  the development on site of the direct uses of geothermal heat  is very useful ».

«I agree with Torsello – Basosi concluded – we need a complex approach, bearing in mind that the only completely clean energy is that which is not used; all the others, including renewables, have some impact. And it is true that there is an increase in the sensitivity matured by citizens on these issues. On the other hand, the paradox that perhaps sees an excess of Nimby committees right now that energy production is becoming increasingly cleaner is putting more pressure on researchers, companies and lenders in the effort to develop better technological solutions. Personally I think that we can not do without geothermal technology: we need geothermal energy, which perhaps today is the least developed source of renewable energy, and I think it is worthwhile to use it as cleanly as possible “.

Source: Greenreport