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Securing environmental and safety risk elements in geothermal development

Drilling rig on site on Bergschenhoek project site, Netherlands (source: Zublin)
Alexander Richter 14 Feb 2020

In this interesting interview/ article, the supervision over geothermal drilling in the Netherlands is looked at from the perspective of the state supervisory on activities related to drilling and environmental and safety risks.

In an interview/ article by Warmtebron Utrecht, Robert Mout, coordinating specialist for Supervision Policy and sector leader geothermal energy at State Supervision of Mines in the Netherlands, highlights how “Security is essential for the success of the energy transition”.

Warmtebron Utrecht (heat source Utrecht) is investigating whether geothermal heat (geothermal) is a safe, feasible and affordable alternative to the use of gas and electricity in the province of Utrecht in the Netherlands.

Drilling for and extracting geothermal heat are mining activities that are inextricably linked to environmental and safety risks. As an independent supervisor of mineral and energy extraction in the Netherlands, State Supervision of Mines (SSM) is committed to ‘the safety of people and the protection of the environment in energy extraction and the utilization of the subsurface, now and in the future.’ We interviewed Robert Mout, coordinating specialist for Supervision Policy and sector leader geothermal at State Supervision of Mines.

“For the energy transition, geothermal energy is a promising sector that at the same time has teething problems that need to be addressed,” says Robert Mout, at SSM. “For us, safety for people and the environment is paramount. In addition, we not only supervise from a technical perspective, but we also explicitly take the interests of the environment into account. SSM believes it is important that the geothermal energy companies actively engage in conversation with local residents about the impact of the activities on their environment. ”

Guard dog

Several aspects are important for a safe geothermal source, such as the quality and choice of materials, but also the design, the layout and the maintenance of the installations. “The risk management covers the entire lifespan, so from the start of the activities up to and including the demolition and dismantling of the installation. SSM therefore not only monitors individual risks, but also looks at the total and over a longer period of time to determine whether safety is properly safeguarded today and in the future. We are on top of this with our supervision and enforcement. As a watchdog, it is not our job to stimulate geothermal energy. But our points for attention do not stand in the way of acceleration and upscaling as described in the geothermal heat master plan for the sector. Security is essential for the success of the energy transition. ”

Impact on the environment

For SSM, protecting the environment means preventing irreversible adverse effects in the subsurface and limiting nuisance and damage to people and the ecosystem. Robert: “These are effects that can occur in the short, long and very long term. SSM, the licensing authority and the geothermal heat companies each have their own responsibility to keep that impact on the environment and the environment as low as possible. ”

Supervision, testing and advice

Although SSM falls under the responsibility of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate (EZK), the independence of the regulator is guaranteed by law. In addition to geothermal heat (geothermal energy), SSM focuses on oil and gas extraction, offshore wind power and salt extraction in our country. Robert: “We ensure that legislation and regulations are complied with. We do this by, among other things, visiting and checking companies and mining locations. In order to organize that supervision as effectively as possible, we draw up a State of the sector for each sector and then work out appropriate supervisory arrangements based on risk analyzes. SSM also advises the Ministry of Economic Affairs on applications for Mining and Environmental Permits from companies and we provide solicited and unsolicited advice on mining activities to the Economic Affairs Department. Based on our specialist knowledge, we can provide clear insight into the risks with which we contribute to the confidence of citizens in a safe living environment. ”

“Only with a good view of the risks, the right technology, knowledge and financing can geothermal energy be a sustainable and safe alternative”

First steps

In 2020, the young geothermal sector in the Netherlands still has to start its growth spurt. Decades ago, pioneering greenhouse growers took the first steps in finding a stable price for the heat in their greenhouses. This involved relatively small-scale projects that were accompanied by a lot of guts and (financial) risks. Given the success in greenhouse land, geothermal energy subsequently also came to the attention of larger parties and consortia such as Warmtebron Utrecht. Those parties are now investigating whether geothermal energy as a promising and sustainable technology offers possibilities for making the heat demand for the built environment more sustainable.

State of the Sector

At that rise, media attention was still too much focused on the sustainable nature of geothermal energy and the route to a low-CO2 or free future in 2050, according to SSM. “Too little attention was paid to the risks of drilling for and winning from geothermal heat. At the time, those risks were still insufficiently clear. The watchdog also found that the laws and regulations were not properly observed everywhere, that there was a weakly developed safety culture, that there was a lack of expert staff and experience, and that knowledge was hardly shared within the sector. Furthermore, it turned out that inferior materials were sometimes used in the first generation of wells for cost reasons, creating chances of leaks and other harmful effects in the subsurface. Robert: “In the report” State of the Geothermal Sector “from 2017, we have translated our observations into conclusions and recommendations for both the sector and the EZK. Because as a competent authority, EZK must of course ensure appropriate legislation and regulations and timely issue of permits. ”

Update

Naturally, the sector did not sit still after the publication of the critical report in 2017. To indicate the current findings with regard to developments and the professionalization of the sector, SSM wants to present an update of the recommendations described this year. in the State of the Geothermal Sector. “But first we will start writing the new supervisory arrangements so that everyone knows what needs to be closely monitored in the coming period. Only with a good view of the risks, the right technology, knowledge, financing and customers can geothermal heat be a sustainable and safe alternative, according to Robert. “It can only succeed if you use the best available technology with attention to these aspects to bring geothermal drilling and extraction to an acceptable level of safety.”

Be open and transparent

As a result of experiences with gas extraction in Groningen, the government, geothermal energy companies and SSM as regulators will have to make a major effort to regain the trust of society where necessary and possible. Robert: “The energy transition, the public interest and the perception of safety in society demand transparency and good information. That is why the bar for openness is very high for SSM. We advocate open and transparent communication about all ins and outs of geothermal heat. Be clear about the risks, about what you know and about what still needs to be investigated. Because that is the only way to enable local residents and the rest of society to see the whole picture. ”

Source: Warmtebron Utrecht