Study recommends pursuing geothermal energy

Though it's a constant source of energy once established, drilling for geothermal power can be risky business Keystone

This content was published on November 20, 2014 - 16:34 and agencies

Despite recent seismic events related to drilling for geothermal power sources, a new study has concluded that Switzerland should continue to pursue geothermal energy as part of its future strategy.

The study from the Centre for Technology Assessment TA-SWISS argues that energy production from geothermal sources is environmentally friendly, reliable and well-priced. However, the organisation also found certain risks involved.

Exploratory geothermal power projects in St Gallen and Basel were recently stopped after unusual seismic activity was found to have been linked to the drilling. However, despite those incidents, TA- SWISS urged Swiss officials not to write off geothermal energy as a power source too quickly.

Gunter Siddiqi of the Swiss Federal Office of Energy agreed geothermal energy’s potential was enormous but said at the presentation of the TA-SWISS study that „we still have to learn how we will get to the heat deep below the surface”.

In order to do that, he said, more experience is needed with how to build and run geothermal energy plants. That job mainly falls to the cantons, Siddiqi added, because they determine how their land is used. The federal government has little control over how and where they launch geothermal energy projects but could establish guidelines to streamline the process across the country.

Canton Geneva is the latest to announce plans to explore geothermal energy by 2017.

‘Necessary evil’

According to the TA-SWISS study, Switzerland’s topography is best suited to petrothermal energy, where water is first pumped deep into the Earth, warmed and pumped out again. That method creates very little carbon dioxide, according to Stefan Hirschberg, the study author from the Paul Scherrer Institute. Two such power plants are already operational in Germany.

The price for geothermal energy would fall in the range of solar and wind energy, and contrary to those power sources, the energy from geothermal heat is constant. According to Siddiqi, that constant supply is a major tenet of Switzerland’s Energy Strategy 2050, which will be debated in parliament later this year.

However, the study does acknowledge the risk of earthquakes while drilling for geothermal energy, which it admitted could never be completely eliminated. Stefan Wiedmer, the director of the Swiss Seismological Service, said the earthquakes are a “necessary evil” and are, above all, important to control.

The necessary precautionary measures associated with drilling for geothermal energy come at a cost: Wiedmer estimates that a pilot project drilling five kilometres below the Earth’s surface would cost between CHF30 and CHF70 million ($31 million to $73 million).

And, the TA-SWISS study found, a sceptical public must also be won over in order to make geothermal energy a viable option for Switzerland. To do this, study authors recommended making geological data publicly available.
Researchers from the Paul Scherrer Institute, the Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zurich, the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) and the Dialogik Institut assisted with the TA-SWISS geothermal energy study.

New energy strategy 2050

Following the Fukushima disaster in Japan, the Swiss government and parliament decided in 2011 to give up building new nuclear power plants and wean the country off nuclear energy altogether.

Between 2012 and 2013, the government came up with a new “Energy Strategy 2050”, which must still be approved by parliament.

The government is proposing that by 2035, the average consumption of power per head of population be reduced by 43% compared to what it was in 2000.

New renewable energy sources are to provide about 20% of electricity needs by 2035. According to environmental groups, this target could be reached by 2025.

By way of comparison, the European Union has set the goal of covering 20% of total energy needs from renewable sources by 2020.

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