Regional government deals blow to Haute-Sorne geothermal project in Switzerland
In an utterly disappointing decision, the regional government in the canton of Jura in Switzerland has announced plans to withdraw a geothermal development permit for the geothermal project Haute-Sorne by Geo-Energie Suisse. With positive scientific and regulatory evaluations, this seems to be a rather populistic decision.
Last week, we reported on the expected positive report on the Haute-Sorne geothermal project of Geo-Energie Suisse in the canton of Jura in Switzerland by the Swiss Seismological Service, but now the cantonal government is giving a huge blow to the project. As reported locally, the cantonal government wants to withdraw the permit for the project.
This decision is a hard blow for the developer. “We first have to wait for the written justification, then we analyze and decide how to proceed,” says Peter Meier, Managing Director of Geo-Energie Suisse.
It is also unclear whether the company will take legal action against the withdrawal of the Jurassic government. Because the legal basis for the project had been approved by the government. The government had already approved a special use plan in June 2015, and the environmental groups had made no complaints. An appeal from the private side against the special use plan was rejected by the Federal Court in December 2018.
Finally, the project received good grades from science. In a report just released, the Swiss earthquake service attested that the concept and risk management in the light of the incident in South Korea did not require any fundamental changes.
The government of Jura had commissioned the earthquake service to compare the earthquake case in South Korea with the project in Haute-Sorne. There, after drilling a geothermal power plant – using a method similar to that in Basel – the earth trembled with a magnitude of 5.4 on November 15, 2017.
“I am still optimistic that deep geothermal energy will continue in Switzerland either in the Jura or elsewhere.”, so Peter Meier, Managing Director of Geo-Energie Suisse.
The procedure that Geo-Energie Suisse uses in the Jura differs significantly from that in Basel and South Korea. The well is said to drill four to five kilometers into the crystalline subsurface in order to be able to generate enough heat for electricity production. But unlike in Basel, a single heat reservoir is not stimulated with water injections in a single operation. The new process gradually generates up to 30 smaller heat reservoirs. In this way, the subsurface can be treated with much less strong water injections, thus minimizing the risk of an earthquake.
The company plans to proceed step by step: First, a pure exploration well will be drilled to explore and measure the subsurface. Then a small test stimulation with low water pressure is planned to check how the surface reacts. The process is also being scientifically tested on a small scale in a gallery in the Bedretto Valley.
The only lighthouse project
The canton kept the report of the Swiss earthquake service under lock and key for a long time, after all it was leaked by unknown persons. This led to a spontaneous press conference by the Jurassic government, April 7, 2020. It looks like the government has been forced to react for political reasons. The project had no strong political and public support. A popular initiative against the project was submitted, which, according to the canton’s constitutional court, is not in accordance with the law. Parliament also adopted a motion that calls for a definitive stop. “I am still optimistic that deep geothermal energy will continue in Switzerland, either in the Jura or elsewhere, but ultimately the courts, the federal government and our shareholders will probably decide,” says Peter Meier from Geo-Energie Suisse.
For the federal government, this project is a beacon project for deep geothermal energy in Switzerland. It supports the project with an exploration contribution of CHF 64.1 million. The power plant could one day produce electricity for around 6,000 households. So far, no kilowatt hour of geothermal electricity has been produced in Switzerland. Nevertheless, the federal government’s Energy Strategy 2050 expects a potential of 4.4 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity for this form of energy generation. That is about eight percent of electricity consumption in Switzerland – and significantly more than the Mühleberg nuclear power plant produced.