Energy, the potential of geothermal energy and the Pangea Project

Florian Gostner, CEO and COO of Fri-El Geo: “It is ready to play an important role in Europe’s future sustainable energy supply”

Geo, Terra, and thermos, hot. Geothermal energy exploits the heat coming from the Earth to produce electricity and heat for district heating networks. An ancient source for man which today, through industrial plants, offers the possibility of producing green energy, without emissions of climate-altering gases and with enormous potential.

“Geothermal energy is one of the energy sources with the least environmental impact and is poised to play an important role in Europe’s future sustainable energy supply. A role which, on the other hand, it has already played for years in some European countries, just look at what has been done in Germany and the Netherlands: in the Federal Republic there are already 46 operational plants, in Holland 26; and if in 2022 the Germans had only 4 plants under construction plus 12 in the authorization phase, in 2023 they have already risen to 34 construction sites and 82 in the process of authorisation. With Italy’s energy dependence from abroad still very high and a subsoil among the best in the world for geothermal energy, it would be irresponsible not to encourage its development, especially in the scenario we have just experienced of an energy crisis and rising prices”, he explains to ‘Adnkronos Florian Gostner, CEO and operating director of Fri-El Geo, active in the development of medium enthalpy geothermal plants, part of the Fri-El Green Power Group, based in Bolzano.

THE POTENTIAL – “Our country has a geothermal energy potential between 5,800 and 116,000 terawatt hours (the annual electricity requirement is around 317 TWh), but it only gets 6 TWh. The ecological transition could give it the opportunity to expand: it is a renewable source, with zero emissions, which allows the production of both electricity and heat and which is continuous and programmable”, underlines Gostner. In particular, Fri-El Geo exploits “geothermal energy with medium enthalpy binary cycle plants, a system that allows the exploitation of the heat contained in the first layer of the subsoil through the injection of a vector fluid by means of a heat pump” .

THE PANGEA PROJECT – With the Pangea Project, Fri-El Geo has identified over 100 possible geothermal installations in the Po Valley basin alone. “Realistically, within 10-15 years about fifty geothermal plants could be started up, each with an output between 200 and 250 thermal megawatts, which correspond to 20-30 electric megawatts. If the Pangea Project were to be completed with its one hundred installations in all, the energy generated would make it possible to avoid the consumption of 9.6 billion cubic meters of natural gas and the emission of 17.3 million tons of CO2 in the alone northern Italy, currently among the most polluted areas in Europe. Overall, with the Pangea Project we could reduce the national gas requirement by 10 to 15%”. Of these 100 projects, explains the company, we expect 15 in the Po Valley for 6.6 billion euro of investments. Of these, 13 are already in the construction pipeline over the next decade, for a reduction in gas consumption of over 1.5 billion cubic metres.

“We want to contribute to the decarbonisation of the country and we will initially focus on northern Italy, for example in Milan and Pavia, where we can take advantage of the already existing district heating networks and where there is greater energy needs, especially from industry, but we have plans also for southern and central Italy”, he announces.

The idea was born in Ostellato, near Ferrara, “where we have a highly energy-intensive hydroponic greenhouse of 30 hectares that produces fruit and vegetables all year round. The geothermal resource will provide the energy to heat and light the greenhouse, so you no longer need fossil fuels. We will also go on to build a district heating network for the industrial area close to the well field. To get an idea of ​​the potential of such a project, a plant like the one in Ostellato can produce enough thermal energy to heat around 120,000 homes and could save 40,000 tons of CO2 a year”.

BRAKES ON DEVELOPMENT – A resource for the transition therefore but with a potential that has not yet been exploited. Why? “One of the reasons why geothermal energy is not widespread is the initial investment risk that operators must assume. The geothermal potential of a site is not easily predictable: the resource is located underground, to access it you have to drill a well, and once you reach it you can discover that its actual yield is much lower than the estimated one. At that point it is difficult to recover the expenses”, says Gostner, explaining that on this aspect “Italy suffers from legislation that is not in step with the times”.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT – On the environmental front, what is the impact of the plants on the territory? “There are no risks, for the simple reason that we don’t focus on faults and the pressure used in the wells is so low as to not cause any problems. In Ferrara some old non-productive oil wells have been converted into geothermal wells producing water at about 100 degrees to feed the urban district heating network and they have been operating for 35 years without any problems – he replies – In the case of medium enthalpy, moreover, there is no emission of vapors or gas or unpleasant odours. There are no environmental problems of any kind, given that with the medium enthalpy the geothermal fluid can be reinjected 100%. The only thing that the fluid gives up is heat”. Furthermore, “the need for land, the space needed to build the plants, is very limited”.