Geothermal Energy

AuthorEuropean Union Publications Office, 2006

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Overview: Major Fields of Research and Key Nations Involved

Geothermal Energy
R&D Areas Drilling, stimulation and reservoir management
State of Commercialisation Expensive option compared to wind, hydropower and biomass, only PV is more expensive
Key Nations US, Iceland
Expected contributions to EU energy policy targets <1% of Europe’s electricity supply before 2030 relevant contributions beyond 2050
EC policy backing
Key Member States Germany, France (accounting for -80% of Member State PV RTD funding)

There are very wide differences in the state of development of the key technical elements required for integration of geothermal electricity generation or heat/power cogeneration into an overall system. While, for example, drilling technology - as a key technology in the petroleum and natural gas industry - is technologically mature, stimulation technology is still in the pilot stage. Further development of stimulation technology to enhance the yield of geothermal reservoirs is of utmost importance, as this will make the exploitation of a vast energy potential possible, particularly in crystalline rocks (hot dry rock technology). Stimulation technology is also important in reducing the prospecting risk when drilling aquifers and fault zones. There is also still major potential for optimisation and further development of plant engineering and power plant technology.

The integration of the individual components into an overall system is currently being pursued in various pilot projects. It can be assumed that geothermally generated electricity from this system will be fed into the grid in the course of the next few years.

The EU is a world leader in Hot Dry Rock (HDR) R&D. Consultancies in France (BRGM), Germany (BEO) and the UK (CSM Associates) have developed considerable expertise in this area. Techniques developed from the EU and former UK programmes are also directly applicable to conventional geothermal technology.

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Research Objectives in the EC, Member States and Third Countries

The EC's strategic priority has always been to produce electricity from geothermal resources. The emphasis lies on Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) that can be utilised in many regions of Europe. In this respect the following research priorities are now being pursued:

* Development of more cost-effective drilling, stimulation and completion technologies.

* Improved real-time reservoir characterisation and monitoring, including high-temperature tracers.

* Improved numerical reservoir modelling for the design of engineered geothermal systems.

* Improved reservoir management techniques and more cost-effective power cycles.

* Implementation of EGS technologies, and coordination of activities, at different sites in Europe where EGS operations are underway or in preparation.

Enhanced Geothermal Systems are characterised by the stimulation of a deep-laying reservoir to produce electricity and heat: they comprise basically two different technological approaches - Hot Dry Rock (HDR) Systems and Water Bearing Geothermal Systems.

The research into ground-coupled heat pumps offering both heating and cooling is another issue being pursued by the EC.

In FP7 the EC will continue to support geothermal technologies, mainly by adjusting components and enhancing systems. Another focus of research with a long term perspective might be systems using even higher temperatures up to 600°C (super critical fluids). Demonstration projects will concentrate on combined systems (heating and cooling) and locating plants closer to the consumer.

Since 1987 several national HDR research programmes have been integrated into a single European programme on a site at Soultz-sous-Forêts, France. This HDR project is an example of cost-sharing and collaborative financial patronage by the European Commission and the appropriate research ministries from such countries as France, Germany, Switzerland and the UK. EC support from successive Framework Programmes has averaged about 40% of total costs, and has been used to maintain the project infrastructure (site management, drilling, pumping costs, etc.) plus a small multinational management team based permanently on site). The actual research is performed by national teams with funding from their ministries109.

The European HDR Project brings together the major national activities of European countries in this technology on one site. In this way, synergies like cost and knowledge-sharing are achieved which help to promote the implementation of the technology. HDR is a technology path on which European researchers have taken a world lead.

Apart from those European countries that have unique geological formations with high-enthalpy resources, such as Italy (Larderello) and Iceland, only a few Member States are pursuing geothermal research as part of their energy strategy. New Member States' expertise lies mainly in geothermal district heating.

In 2004 the French industry, research, environment and transport ministries commissioned a review of R&D priorities in relation to the ambitious goal of cutting greenhouse gases to one-quarter by 2050, while maintaining the competitiveness of France's energy sector. The report determined R&D priorities and highlighted areas where France should aim to maintain or achieve a leading world position. One of those areas is geothermal energy.

In Germany the overall aim of RTD is to achieve cost reductions and promote market deployment. The technological priority areas for research are enhanced geothermal systems, with the focus on both system lines:

* Hot dry rock systems through collaborative support of research in Soultz-sous-Forêts

* Water-bearing hydrothermal systems which are applicable to the North German Basin and comparable European regions.

An example that deserves to be highlighted is the research drilling project at Gross Schönebeck110.

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The German Ministry for Education and Research recently launched Gross Schönebeck, a research and demonstration project coordinated by the German National Research Centre for Geosciences, Potsdam, with a funding volume of euros 11 M, of which euros 1 M is provided by industry and operators.

In addition to the fact that this initiative received the highest single project funding, it is significant because, if successful, it paves the way for application in the similar geological formations that can be found in extensive regions of Central and Eastern Europe.

The overall objectives of this project are:

* To enhance planning reliability

* To achieve major cost reductions by exploiting the water-carrying reservoirs as much as possible.

The main key to achieving these objectives is enhancing the geological formation through hydraulic stimulation.

Over a three-years term, the project aims to demonstrate fundamental feasibility, gather long term experience, and prove the sustainable availability of resources. If successful, the relevant power plant (ORC) will be constructed in 2007 by the Vattenfall electricity operator.

It is expected that the generating costs will be 20-30 cents per kWh.

The EGEC - European Geothermal Energy Council111 - has among its key priorities the dissemination of EGS technologies to other sites and regions, as well as the promotion of "classical" geothermal power and low/medium-temperature power, district heating, etc. The Council is keen to extend the scope of the current EC research portfolio.

The European technological focus on Enhanced Geothermal Systems is comparable with what strategy of the main competitor, the US, though the breakdown of research objectives is more detailed than in the EC work programme. US activities are differentiated between Technology Development, including resource development, EGS and systems development, and Technology Application activities such as technology verification and deployment112.

Japan, as a volcanic country, has favourable conditions for geothermal applications. The total installed capacity of geothermal power generation in Japan is more than 535 MWe. However, geothermal energy is not classified as a "new energy" that enjoys protection under the law concerning Promotion of the Use of New Energy enacted in 1997. According to the Japanese Energy Supply and Demand Outlook, future growth in geothermal energy will be low. Consequently, METI took the decision to eliminate the entire budget for technical geothermal energy research and development. Existing geothermal research113 in Japan focuses on studies of those areas in Japan likely to hold geothermal resources but that have not yet been subject to development surveys.

The activities of the International Energy Agency (IEA) Implementing Agreement for a Cooperative Programme on Geothermal Energy Research and Technology, or Geothermal Implementing Agreement (GIA)114, presently cover five different task areas: Environmental Impacts of Geothermal Development, Enhanced Geothermal Systems, Deep Geothermal Resources, Advanced Geothermal Drilling Techniques, and Direct Use of Geothermal Energy.

Funding for Geothermal Energy Research
European Commission-Funded Research

EC funding of geothermal research has doubled from FP5 to FP6115. Still, this area receives the second smallest budget of all renewables. As in previous Framework Programmes, FP6 concentrates on enhanced geothermal systems. Over 70% of EC support flows into EGS or related research, and in particular into the European HDR Project at Soultz-sous-Forêts (France) which alone accounts for nearly 37% of the geothermal budget.

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Research Funded at EU Country Level

The RTD budget of the Member States of Germany and France accounts for roughly 80% of geothermal RTD funding by the EU-15. Germany's level of funding is as follows: euros 8.1 M (2004), euros 10.8M (2005), euros 11.2M (2006). The budget is approximately split 50-50 between HDR and water-bearing systems research. Over the last few years (2001-2004) geothermal energy had a share of 13.4% of the RTD budget. France spent euros4.0M in 2001 and euros 2.4 M in 2002 on geothermal research. This represents 13% of the French RTD budget for renewables.

Research Funded at Third Country Level

The United States has reduced its funding somewhat over the last few years, with actual funding levels of euros 20.7 M (2004), euros21.3M (2005), euros 19.6 M (2006)116. The downward trend in this area is continuing, with more than two-thirds of funding flowing into medium to long term research117. Cost sharing between public institutions and industry depends on the associated risk and uncertainty of research. The DoE tries to stimulate researchers to team up with industry right from the outset of a project, because experience has shown that this helps to speed up the deployment of research.

Japan terminated its support for geothermal energy in 2003. Minor research is still done by institutionally funded institutes, in particular with respect to geothermal development promotion surveys.


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Evaluation and Conclusions
Technology Focus

The following table shows the relative allocation of public funding to technological sub-areas within the geothermal sector in the EC, Germany, US and Japan.


The technological focus of RTD in Europe is on enhanced geothermal systems, comparable to the priorities of the main competitor, the US. Both technology paths - HDR and water-bearing systems - are being pursued, but the EC and most Member States focus on HDR, whereas the US and Germany pay almost equal attention to HDR and water- bearing technology. Reflecting their own specific geological environments, countries like Italy and Iceland are addressing high-enthalpy resources as an additional technology path.

As for EGS research, issues like finding, characterising, and assessing geothermal sources, or enhancing reservoirs in order to create economical amounts of water and/or permeability, are high on the agenda. The EU has the leadership in HDR research but, despite a downward trend in funding in this field of reference, the US is still dedicating a relatively high amount of funding to this area.


In the time period 2000-2004 the US had, with euros 21.9 M, by far the highest funding for RTD in geothermal systems compared with euros 16.0 M for Europe and euros 9.7 M for Japan, though with a gradually decreasing trend. According to the Director of the US Geothermal Programme, this downward trend is largely due to the recent shift of US funding to hydrogen and fuel cells, while also reducing the funding scope for the more "traditional alternative technologies" such as hydropower or geothermal energy. In contrast to this US trend, the European Commission and such Member States as Germany and France have increased their efforts. In Europe about 5% of the renewable RTD budget is allocated to geothermal energy research: the corresponding figure for the U.S is 11.2%.

Japan no longer expects geothermal energy to contribute to the country's energy future and, as a result, has phased out funding for geothermal research since 2003.

Research and Technology Development

Due to the fact that enhanced geothermal systems still need significant research to achieve commercial viability, RTD in this area has a clear medium to long term orientation.

To be competitive, the technology still has to achieve considerable cost reductions - as well as reduced prospecting risks and increased security against investment risks - so sustainable continuity of research is essential. Several years of successful operation will be required before utilities can reasonably be expected to develop confidence in these systems.


[109] - 136_en.htm

[110] - GeoForschungsZentrum (2005)

[111] -EGEC 2005

[112] - For details of the core of the US RTD geothermal programme, please refer to Annex VIII. 1

[113] - IEA (2005): Geothermal Energy Annual Report 2004, Paris; NEDO 2004, p. 107

[114] -

[115] - For details of EC funding on geothermal energy in FP5 and FP6, please refer to Annex VIII.2

[116] - DoE 2005, p. 16

[117] - Information from Mr. Roy Mink, Director of Geothermal Programme, DoE

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