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New momentum for geothermal energy development in Switzerland

Flag thrower, Switzerland (source: flckr/ Jessica Gardner, creative commons)
Alexander Richter 21 May 2020

Geothermal energy sees more and more interest in the context of the energy transition in Switzerland, yet facing some challenges. Little research exists on the resource potential and there are some strong opposition to development. Like the opportunities particularly for heat are there.

There are hopes that Switzerland’s 2050 energy strategy will give geothermal energy development a certain momentum. There are though lots of unknowns remaining about the subsurface of Switzerland.

In Switzerland, efforts are underway to “accelerate the expansion of geothermal energy”, said Nathalie Andenmatten, President of the Swiss Geothermal Energy Association, in a webinar “Blickpunkt Geothermie” by the agency Enerchange May 15, 2020.

With the adoption of the politically desired energy strategy 2050, various revised regulations came into force in 2018. One of these was the amended CO2 Act, which has also benefited heating projects in Switzerland since 2018. For geothermal heating projects, up to CHF 30 million  (equivalent to EUR 28.5 million or USD 31.1 million) are made available from the CO2 levy for the exploration and development of reservoirs. The federal government can cover up to 60% of the eligible costs.

According to Andenmatten, the legal changes with the energy strategy in 2018 have now triggered a new “dynamic” in Switzerland. Nevertheless, there are still obstacles that need to be removed. A pilot project in the canton of Geneva, which she presented, should contribute to this.

As in many parts of Germany, one of the problems in Switzerland is the acceptance of the population, which President Andenmatten described as “difficult” in the webinar – especially with deep geothermal projects. The earth trembled a few years ago during test drilling in Basel and St. Gallen, for example, and the projects were canceled. Skepticism is often left behind. In addition, despite funding, the financial risk of failure is high and there is a lack of know-how among workers in Switzerland. One of the biggest obstacles to the development of this technology, however, is that the knowledge about the deep subsurface is insufficient.

Little research has yet been done on geothermal potential in Switzerland

This is where the pilot project “GEothermie” in the canton of Geneva comes in, which Andenmatten presented in the webinar. According to the Andenmatten, the geological conditions in the canton are promising and are being researched in detail. The first exploration well in Satigny in 2018 was successful, producing 33 degrees Celsius warm water at a depth of 420 to 744 meters at a flow rate of more than 50 liters per second. A second test well was running. In addition, 2D and 3D measurements are planned.

Geneva currently sources more than 90% of its energy requirements from outside the canton, and the fossil share is around 75%. In order to bring these values ??down, Geneva relies, among other things, on the local resource geothermal energy: by 2035, 20% of the heating energy in the canton of Geneva is to be generated by geothermal energy.

Several research projects – including the hydropower and geo-energy project – have shown that there are good conditions in Switzerland for the use of geothermal energy, both for the building stock and for industrial processes. However, there is no holistic approach in Switzerland, which is urgently needed. Both the possibilities for using heat, for electricity production and as a storage medium, as well as the conditions in the underground, together with all aspects of energy supply and greenhouse gas emissions, would have to be addressed holistically and taking into account the diverse dependencies. This is the only way to find optimal solutions.

Without the consent of the population, the potential of deep geothermal energy cannot be exploited. In order to achieve the necessary broad acceptance, the population would have to be involved in the corresponding projects at an early stage and be given comprehensive information. Here too, the pilot project in Geneva is trying to go ahead. Andenmatten therefore sees important steps in Geneva and in other pilot projects to get new impetus into the Swiss geothermal industry. Her goal was to replace oil and gas with renewable energies by 2050.

Geothermal energy in Switzerland

The share of geothermal energy in renewable heat supply in Switzerland rose from 15.5% in 2000 to almost 30%. The total heating capacity of all geothermal plants in Switzerland was around 2,197 MW in 2018. As a rule, geothermal probes, groundwater wells and warm tunnel water are used in connection with a heat pump for heating and in some cases also for cooling purposes. With direct geothermal uses without heat pumps, a total of 201,000 MWh was produced in 2018, which corresponds to 5.4% of the heating energy produced. However, currently only heat is generated in Switzerland, no electricity from geothermal sources.

Source: Energie & Management