Greece must pick up the pace on geothermal energy

Greece must pick up the pace on geothermal energy

After the raft of commitments announced by the world’s governments at last year’s COP26 climate summit, the question on everyone’s lips is how much progress on reducing carbon emissions will actually be made.

To his credit, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis outlined a number of ambitious targets for Greece, including phasing out coal and increasing renewable energy sources, with the construction of new offshore wind farms and establishing Greece as a green energy hub for Europe. 

Significantly, he said, “We also want to be innovators in pump storage electricity, taking advantage of the country’s unique geomorphology.” This in particular is welcome news, as for too long Greece has not maximized its significant geothermal resources.

It is estimated that, theoretically, the earth’s geothermal resources are more than adequate to supply humanity’s energy needs – although in reality only a very small fraction is currently being profitably exploited, often in areas near tectonic plate boundaries.

But, as the world keeps looking for sustainable energy solutions, geothermal energy exploration can be essential for those countries with access to it – and Greece is one such country, being rich in geothermal resources due to active extensional tectonics and volcanic activity. The country has high enthalpy fields in the islands of the Aegean volcanic arc – mainly Milos and Nisyros – and extensive geothermal fields concentrated in northern Greece – specifically in Central and Eastern Macedonia and Thrace, but also in Chios and Lesvos in the islands of the Eastern Aegean. That means use of geothermal heat in Greece could be used to satisfy a big part of energy demand in those areas where such resources exist.

The idea of using geothermal energy is not new. Back in the mid-1980s, Public Power Corporation (PPC) began initiating attempts to generate electricity from geothermal energy on Nisyros, but poor government management, among other mistakes, meant it never realized this vision. Many Greeks will also remember another failed effort in the 1980s to develop the geothermal field on Milos. PPC’s first pilot scheme on the island had technical shortcomings: not least significant failures in the choice of management of the emitted gases, mainly hydrogen sulfide, which created serious environmental problems. Naturally, this brought about a justifiable outcry from the local population.

Over the last few years, interest in geothermal energy in Greece has been rejuvenated, with it being employed in a number of projects in northern Greece. But where geothermal energy has been utilized, it has been fairly limited, and exploited solely through direct uses. This direct use includes thermal spas, greenhouses, soil heating, fish farming, aquaculture and crop-drying. To date, little progress has been made in terms of using it for the part of clean electricity generation.

Because of the negative experiences of the 1980s, one of the key challenges the government faces is how to sell geothermal energy as a reliable energy source, and persuade the public not just of its potential but its safety. On the positive side, much has changed in terms of available technologies for the management of geothermal by-products, while very soon Greece will complete a regulatory framework for geothermal energy with clear and robust environmental safeguards.

The Greek government also needs to address other issues that have delayed geothermal development, including a lack of financial capital and investment incentives, and infrastructure and strategic planning for exploitation of geothermal energy in underutilized areas.

Nevertheless, there are already encouraging signs of the wider use of geothermal energy. One such project is in Alexandroupoli on Greece’s northeast coast, which exploits the Antheia-Aristino low-enthalpy geothermal field near the city. The project includes the development of a geothermal district heating network that will service municipal buildings and social housing. It is considered as the first step of the exploitation of the available geothermal energy, since the municipality aims to expand geothermal district heating networks to residential buildings and potential industrial consumers.

Utilizing geothermal energy to this extent is limited however, in that it can only happen in those locations where such resources exist. However, there is scope for Greece to go further on how buildings are heated and cooled across the country more efficiently, by installing more heat pumps that exploit the thermal capacity of the ground. These avoid the use of fossil fuels and are a much more efficient – and clean – way of heating and cooling buildings. While there are upfront costs, there are long-term savings, so other countries – including the UK – have provided incentives for developers and contractors to install such systems. In the UK, this has paid off – such systems have now become the norm, so there is no need to incentivize any more.

There’s also now resident expertise within Greece on installing such systems. For example, McBains, which has a presence in Greece through its subsidiary, McBains Cooper Hellas Technical Consulting SA, has worked on several such projects using heat pump systems, such as the £15 million (17.7-million-euro) headquarters and training facility for Gloucestershire Police, in the southwest of England. The ground source closed loop heat pump solution for heating and cooling this building has achieved energy savings of more than 30% when compared to conventional air-conditioning using gas-fired boilers and chillers, and the project has created a blueprint for use of large ground source geothermal systems in commercial applications. 

Prime Minister Mitsotakis has made positive noises on geothermal energy. The government now needs to step up the pace and make the most of the country’s unique advantages in terms of its access to geothermal resources – but also explore other clean heating and cooling alternatives if it really wants to achieve its COP26 commitments.

Anthony Coumidis is managing director and vice president of McBains Cooper Hellas Technical Consulting SA, and commercial director of the parent company McBains Consulting Ltd in the UK, a consulting and design agency specializing in property, infrastructure and construction.

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