Granted, geothermal energy costs are still very high today, but so are the costs of every other electricity technology when compared with the very low spot prices on the European electricity market – less than 3 Rp. per kilowatt hour in the afternoon – driven by extensive coal burning in Germany. As we are trying to establish our future energy mix, we should not discard technologies today for fear that they will be too expensive decades from now. Economically sustainable production of geothermal electricity will be possible in Switzerland – particularly when it is also extensively developed across Europe.
The main safety issue when developing a deep productive reservoir is induced earthquakes, such as we experienced in Switzerland with the Basel 2006 and St. Gallen 2013 projects. These had to be abandoned when small quakes were felt and caused minor damage at the surface. Induced seismicity is also affecting other geo-energy applications in several European countries, including shale and conventional oil and gas extraction, gas storage, wastewater injection and deep mining. Rather than retreating from new technologies, we need to learn how to control the response of the rock when we extract or inject fluids in order to avoid bigger runaway quakes.
Meeting the goal
For the successful development of geothermal energy, as for every new technology, we need an extensive period of experimentation and investment continuity before the technology will fully demonstrate its potential. To enable the development of geothermal heat and electricity production, the Swiss parliament is debating a range of support measures such as feed-in tariffs, risk guarantees in case of unproductive wells, and a national drilling program to explore the deep underground.
These measures are necessary but probably not sufficient. If we want to reach the target set by the Swiss Energy Strategy 2050 – 4.4 terrawatt hours per year or 7 % of our present electricity supply – all players have to do their part:
- an alliance of cantons should accompany the federal support by defining common licensing regulations and coordinating a number of projects
- a nation-wide experimental and modelling research and development programme should be provided all the way to 2050 (the SCCER-SoE is a first step in the right direction and hopes for a positive parliamentary decision on the promotion of education, research and innovation for 2017 to 2020)
- a number of demonstration projects in different geological settings, using different technologies should be implemented to reach a capacity of 20 megawatts electric installed every year from 2025 to 2050
- electricity producers should make a concerted effort to combine projects for electricity production and direct heat usage
There is no time to waste; this phase of nation-wide demonstration has to start now. It’s time to go geothermal!