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Italy – as sleeping beauty of geothermal energy – lagging behind in development

Larderello plant ca. 1950, Tuscany, Italy (Picture: US. National Archives)
Alexander Richter 27 Mar 2018

Being the birthplace of geothermal power generation, Italy has played a remarkable role in geothermal development, but has not seen any real push forward and is now falling behind other countries both in research and development.

Despite being the birthplace of geothermal power generation with the first plant built and operated in Lardarello/ Tuscany, Italy has though stayed behind in the development, as described in a recent article in Italian media.

With a new resolution setting binding targets for EU members having been approved, Italy like the other members will have to fulfill stringent targets. The targets include a 35% improvement in energy efficiency, a minimum percentage of at least 35% of energy from renewable sources in gross final energy consumption and a 12% share of energy from renewable sources in transport by 2030.

All countries now have to take action to set up a national plan to support renewable energies that allows them to achieve the objectives indicated. How will Italy move forward on those targets?

According to the latest data published by the Energy Services Manager, updated to 2016, energy from renewable sources in 2016 in Italy was 17.35%, a slight decrease compared to 17.49% in the previous year . While the use of renewables in the transport sector grew, it rose from 6.4% to 7.2% between 2015 and 2016.

Within this framework, the “weight” of renewable energy is very varied. In 2016 the source that gave the most important contribution to electricity production is the hydraulic one that is worth 39% of production, while geothermal energy is attributable only to a 6% .

The production of energy that exploits the heat of the ground, in fact, is proceeding at a snail’s pace after a more than brilliant start.

In Italy, geothermal energy is present only in one region, Tuscany (in Pisa, Siena and Grosseto) which also has the merit of having “discovered” the existence of geothermal heat for power generation first in Europe. In fact, the first attempt to produce electricity using steam coming from the center of the earth dates back to 1904, when Prince Piero Ginori Conti started experimenting with the first geothermal generator in Larderello, a small fraction of the Municipality of Pomarance, in the province of Pisa. From that moment on, Tuscany has no longer stopped becoming the Italian queen of geothermal energy, a queen, however, left alone from the rest of the territory and then fell into a deep sleep.

Despite the fact that geothermal energy is considered the best source of renewable energy in terms of performance and reliability, in recent years the development of this sector has come to a halt .

In the statistical report of GSE we read that it is ” characterized by an almost constant availability during the year ; consequently, compared to the other plants powered by renewable sources, the performance of geothermal plants is the best in terms of producibility “.

According to the manager of energy services, in the past two years the number and the installed capacity of geothermal power plants have remained unchanged, and also widening his eyes to plants in operation between 2003 and 2016, capacity increased only by 5.4% passing from 773 MW to 815 MW.

And so Italy, the first country in the world to exploit the natural warmth of the earth, is slipping down in the world rankings . In 2015, the last to surpass us were the New Zealanders with a production that exceeded 1,000 MW. Now Italy is looking back on the Philippines, Mexico, Indonesia, and the U.S.; and trudges behind the shot in research and development made by Austria, Norway, Germany and France. A good reason to focus on the development of the sector comes from IRENA, the International Renewable Energy Agency according to which 94% of the known geothermal resources are not yet exploited.

So why is Italy becoming the sleeping beauty of world geothermal production? The reasons, according to experts, are economic and environmental . Going to find resources suitable for the “cultivation” of geothermal energy means to make deep drilling even a few kilometers, a technically very complex operation and at the same time financially demanding. The money needed for each well is significantly higher than those needed for the development of wind and solar power plants.

Italy therefore suffers from the lack of large industrial operators with their shoulders large enough to take on risks and expenses. In fact, since 2010, when Enel has lost its monopoly of the sector (although it remains the owner of the most resource-rich Tuscan areas), many research permits have been approved , but emerging operators, including Cogeme, Futuro Energia, Sorgenia Geothermal, Geothermics Italy, GeSto Italy, Magma Energy Italy, are struggling to carry out other projects .

This is also due to the fact that national incentives, at least until today, are scarce . With the ministerial decree 2016, the Minister of Economic Development Carlo Calenda has allocated EUR 9 billion of new funds for renewable energy other than photovoltaics: of these resources are destined for geothermal less than EUR 40 million.

The second major brake on the development of the sector is linked to the environmental impact and the resistance of the citizens. The high temperature fluids extracted from the subsoil release gases containing mercury, arsenic, sulfur dioxide and ammonia, so that some parties, in Italy the 5 Star Movement, contest the European incentives recognized in the sector. Experts say that the modern systems, unlike those installed in the ’60s, are small in size and with minimal or even zero emissions.

The fact is that in recent days the news that 20% of the Tuscan Municipalities (51 out of 274) does not want geothermal energy . In fact, many of the geothermal and neighboring municipalities have asked the Tuscany Region, according to the regional resolution on the “zoning” of last May, to be considered “unsuitable area” for the installation of new geothermal production facilities.

In Tuscany, Enel Green Power operates the world’s oldest geothermal complex, which today consists of 34 power plants, for a total of 37 production groups. The company has always tried to curb the protests of citizens with compensatory works or initiatives in favor of the territory. Investment in geothermal district heating, for example, allows homes and businesses to heat rooms and have hot water at affordable prices. Enel claims that there are more than 10 thousand residential users and companies in geothermal territories that heat up with geothermal energy, in addition to 30 hectares of greenhouses and dairies. In addition, there are numerous conventions and protocols signed with the Municipalities concerned with the aim of developing a tourist and excursion chaingeothermal trekking (about 60 thousand visits a year) .

In short, despite the need to increase the production of energy from renewable sources and the enormous potential in terms of quantity and quality of energy produced, geothermal energy in Italy remains clinging to the only Tuscan production, at the center for years of a controversial and poorly managed relationship with the territory.

Source: Business Insider