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Interview with Adele Manzella, Italian Geothermal Union – Geothermal energy research in Italy

Bagnore 3 plant, Tuscany, Italy (source: Enel Green Power)
Alexander Richter 27 Sep 2018

In an interview with a local publication, Adele Manzella President of the Italian Geothermal Union talks about research on geothermal energy in Tuscany/ Italy and the prominent role it will continue play with a significant expansion for the use of heat.

A recent with Adele Manzella, First Researcher of the National Research Council (CNR) and President of the Italian Geothermal Union was published in Tuscan publication ARPAT in Italy.

Adele Manzella was the coordinator of the national projects of the CNR dedicated to geothermal: VIGOR (Evaluation of geothermal potential in the regions of convergence) and Geothermal Atlas of Southern Italy. She is also participating in the European Technology and Innovation Platform Steering Committee of the European Set Plan Deep Geothermal (ETIP-DG) and represents the CNR at the Joint Program Geothermal Energy of the European Energy Research Alliance (EERA-JPGE) of the European Set Plan, and in the European Geothermal Energy Council (EGEC) and the International Geothermal Association (IGA).

The production of electricity from geothermal sources in Italy is a peculiarity of Tuscany. Some question whether geothermal energy is actually a renewable energy source, is it? What is preferable compared to traditional fossil sources?

As with other renewable energy sources, the energy that is collected by geothermal plants, determined by the flow of terrestrial heat, is naturally reintegrated into a human time scale. There is therefore no doubt that the geothermal energy used to produce electricity and heat is renewable.

The discussion on the sustainability of the use of resources is more complete. To be sustainable, the energy source must not only be renewable, but also used efficiently, without excessive impacts on the resource itself, on society (in social and economic terms) and on the environment.

What are the sustainable (and not) aspects of geothermal energy?

Current technologies can guarantee sustainable use of the natural resource: we speak of geothermal “cultivation”, that is, the extraction of heat in a prudent manner, without over-exploiting the system, just as a land is cultivated without impoverishing it. This sustainability is important in the first instance for industrial operators, who would not earn us if the resource ran out over the years. But, just like in cultivating land, there are always effects on society and the environment. Quantifying them, evaluating them also in comparison with other options, in our energy case, is important and complex.

The geothermal plants present in Tuscany [Italy] are all of the “traditional” type. In relation to the characteristics of the geothermal fluid present, it is argued by many that this is the only possible solution, what can you tell us about it?

Considering that there are no commercial technologies that allow to reinject fluids with very high content of gas such as the Tuscan geothermal fluids, thus eliminating the interference with the environment, I think it is undeniable that the best solution available on the market is that used in Tuscany. But this does not mean that other solutions can not exist, but that it is necessary to identify and test them.

Some countries are experimenting with innovative technologies, but none of them is applicable ipso facto to Tuscany, because the geological situation and the characteristics of fluids are different. Not having been tested in the Tuscan conditions, there is no data regarding the effects that these new technologies would have in Tuscany, so at the moment there are more possibilities than solutions.

I believe in the importance and urgency of experimentation in this sector, and in fact I participate in a European project (GECO) that will begin at the end of the year, which has as its objective exactly a research on this topic.

Has a project been presented for the construction of a geothermal binary system in Castelnuovo Val di Cecina, do you think it is a viable route?

Innovation is not simply in the binary system, which is a widely used commercial technology and we know it is viable. The plant proposed in Castelnuovo has the value of experimentation with the separation and management of fluids, and in fact participates in the already mentioned GECO European project. This experimentation will allow us to get out of the current condition of “opinion” to enter into that of the objective observation of the effects of the proposed technologies.

You have recently published the book “Geothermics and Society” in which you deal in depth with the theme of the involvement of local communities. What do you want to tell us about this point? What could be the role of communication regarding the involvement of local communities?

I think it is essential not only to communicate, but also to initiate a two-way communication. Very often we talk but we do not listen and all these voices add up to be a noise with more and more access but not easily discernible in their actual content. Too often the tones of fear and ill humor, even anger, or of economic interest, are clear, yet there are other emotions that do not emerge: the pride, the pleasure of those working in the sector and in related fields, the enthusiasm in search.

Communicating is essential, even through forms of public debate and deliberative democracy that are truly effective. All this is to be organized because it has never been done in geothermal energy: let’s get ready.

In the geothermal areas, various citizens’ committees have been set up that challenge existing plants and those that are possible for the future, even of the binary type. What do you think about the concerns they express?

As we wrote in the articles and in the book, I believe that the main concern is the result of lack of trust in the institutions. Unfortunately it is a crucial problem in Italy and it is certainly not just about geothermal energy.

The environmental, health and social aspects that underlie the concerns must guide in the management and planning, that is in the choices, but they must not lead to a stagnation, as is happening instead.

In the existing geothermal plants, a system to reduce polluting emissions has been installed , the AMIS; are the residual emissions still to be considered significant?

At CNR we have conducted several studies on this, creating documents that analyze national and international regulations, the data available monitored by the authorities and trying to offer a complete overview of the situation. The emissions in Italy are kept under strict control, and abatement levels are very high. I do not think that the residual emissions are significant. However, it is necessary to continue to improve the abatement and control techniques, and to offer greater transparency in information, also as a comparison with other technologies.

Soon another European project will start (GEOENVI) dedicated to the environmental aspects of geothermal energy, to which I will participate with great interest and during which we will have the opportunity to analyze the data also in an international comparison and compared to other energy technologies.

Among the concerns expressed by the committees (for both types of plants) there are those related to subsidence and microseismicity, what can you tell us about it?

Both these aspects are subject to continuous monitoring and the data do not indicate changes that I consider worrying compared to what happens only for natural causes.

And what about impacts on groundwater?

I greatly appreciated the positive effect that the worries have generated: finally there is a monitoring plan in Amiata and the data primarily serve to ensure the care of the aquifer. The data collected so far do not indicate a clear interference between the surface layers and the geothermal aquifer, but monitoring will allow to identify the occurrence of any problems. The path traveled, that of control, is the correct one, and should be expanded.

What should be, from your point of view, the future for geothermal energy in Tuscany?

In my opinion, I hope Tuscany, thanks to its extraordinary resources, will continue to play a prominent role in the world for the production of electricity and will significantly expand the production of heat by creating district heating networks and small systems for the use of heat in many places, with levels of high energy efficiency and highly specialized professionalism. All this can not be achieved with imperatives to maintain the status quo, fears, threats or pressures: we need to innovate and improve, opportunities for research and systems of measurement and control, the implementation of systems of citizen participation that, with well-defined methods and certain times, they will lead to projects that take into account all the opinions.

Source: ARPAT news Toscana