Alsace: A hotbed for geothermal energy

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is in a bit of a legal void in France. It is effectively banned – by a government law in place since 2011 – so it seems difficult to imagine the Alsace region might be planning on doing something similar to harness its energy resources.

That is what the enhanced geothermal system power plant in the town of Soultz-sous-Forêts, in the northern, Bas-Rhin area of the region, is planning to do. The project aims to develop a power plant capable of generating geothermal energy in a natural way.

It is unfortunately more complex than this.

A keystone within Europe
Alsace region map

The Alsace region of France is almost literally a keystone within Europe. As well as France, it borders Germany and Switzerland, and is within spitting distance of Luxembourg and Belgium. It is an ideal location for France to base European trade.

It contains the city of Strasbourg, famed mostly for housing the 766 members of the European Parliament every month, as well as for being the seventh-most populous city in France. It sits very close to the official border with Germany and has the second-largest port on the Rhine (behind the German city of Duisburg). Interestingly, 2thinknow ranks the city eighteenth globally in terms of innovation.

Alsace also has a population density that is twice France’s national average, and is still experiencing a rise thanks both to increased immigration and people unwilling to leave the area.

Its economy is historically based on agriculture. The region houses a huge number of small, family-owned farms, and the city of Colmar is a large-scale producer of wine in France. During the industrial revolution it moved into textile manufacturing, and slowly built up an impressive and modern portfolio of output including pharmaceuticals, telecommunications and component manufacture.

Could the next step be geothermal energy production? France’s government and the European Union would like to think so.

Could slow global warming

Geothermal energy is normally accessed by injecting water into the ground and firing it at rocks to reopen fissures and access the volcanic heat below. Because the surface of the Earth is far cooler than the heat contained deep within the planet, the thermal energy (in the form of heat) rises up rapidly and is collected in power plants.

The experimental Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) project in Soultz-sous-Forêts is one of the first of a new breed of geothermal energy plants which do not have to rely on naturally-occurring geothermal heat. Using “hydraulic stimulation”, hot dry rock that is usually too hard to use effectively can be broken down to access the heat below.

The project has been underway since 2004, and is one of very low scale. It consists of just three wells dug five kilometres deep, and produces only one and a half megawatts, which in theory is enough to power 1,250 homes. A far larger output would be required to really make an impact in the country.

Geothermal energy is being looked into as it produces far less carbon emissions per unit harvested than fossil fuels, and there is theoretically more than enough of the resource to be found in the Earth to meet the world’s energy demands. As such, a long-term, wide-scale implementation of this method could dramatically slow down global warming.

Even so, the success or failure of this endeavour will probably make a big impact on whether or not it is implemented more widely in other areas of the Union.

As it stands, Iceland is currently leading the way in Europe in terms of harnessing this energy as electricity – 30% of their national electricity production comes from geothermal wells. 33 plants in the central Italian region of Tuscany contribute almost 2% of the total production for the country.

The European Union as a whole uses around one gigawatt of geothermal electric power, and the installed capacity for the heat sector is around nine gigawatts altogether.

Geothermal plant in Soultz-sous-Forêts

The Soultz-sous-Forêts project receives EU funding in an unusual way. As it is a pilot project to test equipment for use on a larger scale, as well as to train teams from various member states looking to go ahead with this technique, it receives funding from a pot contributed to by nine member states and Norway.

Total costs for the pilot project are estimated to be around 26 million euros, with the European Commission contributing 5 million euros of that total.

“Creating a double standard”

How to harness geothermal energy in the Alsace region has been an issue in France’s politics for months, but they seem rather neutral on the issue. Although hydraulic fracturing was banned not three years ago, this was only banning the use of the technology for harnessing oil and gas. Geothermal energy remains an unknown quantity.

The methods used to access geothermal heat are very similar to those controversially used in some areas of oil and gas drilling.

In February last year, France’s Environment Minister, Delphine Batho, gave out two licences to organisations seeking to experiment with this newfound resource, and as a whole the Hollande government seemed very excited about the move.

Union Francaise des Industries Petrolieres, a French oil industry lobby group, was not as thrilled. “Granting geothermal exploration permits is creating a double standard,” its head, Jean-Louis Schilansky, told Bloomberg Sustainability. “The drilling methods are similar to fracking.”

The debate will have a tremendous impact on whether or not the Soultz-sous-Forêts project will get off the ground at all. If the government does proceed to use these techniques it seems plausible that the ban on shale fracking – used to harness underground oil or gas – may be challenged in courts.

Despite apparent similarities, Aitor Urresti, an anti-fracking activist and lecturer at the University of the Basque Country specialised in renewable and thermal energy, explains they are not quite the same idea.

“The technique is the same as when extracting gas, or very similar: it uses the same chemicals, similar pressures and similar individual harms,” he says. “There is a clear difference between both cases: the number and the magnitude of operations.

“For geothermal energy only two or three wells can be dug, or ten maximum for really big plants, and these will work in a quite limited area.

“This makes more thorough control over the operations possible, and makes waste management much simpler,” he continues. “Besides, as there is no gas, it eliminates a great deal of the risk.”

If the debate can be settled, it may well be that the Alsace region finds a new purpose as pioneers of geothermal energy, and it could well be that these plants will eventually replace fossil fuels to become Europe’s leading source of energy.

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