Three focus areas for Geothermal in Ireland and beyond in 2022
Posted on Wednesday, January 19th, 2022
Posted on Wednesday, January 19th, 2022
First published in the Newsletter of the Geothermal Association of Ireland, 17th January 2022
It’s both a pleasure and privilege to have been asked to write this perspective for the Geothermal Association of Ireland. I’d like to grasp the opportunity to share some ideas on what our collective priorities might be for geothermal in Ireland during 2022, the third year of the so called “geothermal decade”. But first I want to reflect on 2021 because it offers a wonderful basis for our efforts this year and beyond.
We’re getting going with the Geothermal Decade
2021 was a pretty good year for geothermal in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Not because there was a notable uptick in the use of geothermal energy on the island. There wasn’t, although it would be hard to know if there was because we don’t really have the visible reporting and recording processes in place – yet. Rather it was a series of events that collectively began to put the possibility of geothermal – clean, local, always-on energy from the earth below our feet – on the collective radar screens of Irish society.
People are beginning to listen
Firstly, through a number of reports such as issued by the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland and the Geological Survey of Ireland we now have some great educational content on the potential of geothermal on the island. This information can and has already been used as a basis for informing the curious and became part of an increasingly present dialogue in social media, online conferences and so on, advertising the possibility of geothermal.
The power of social media platforms like LinkedIn is that they shrink the world, enabling topics like geothermal to be discussed as a global societal, business and professional opportunity. The amount of geothermal dialogue is clearly on the up, and these conversations highlight and weave together other events, milestones and information flows. If used wisely, this all allows for a faster pace of development of geothermal. I am glad we a number of voices in the dialogue!
Policymakers are taking note
The second piece of progress was grabbing the attention of policy makers and policy advisors. I won’t name names here, but there are a number of people that deserve a lot of credit for this – in both jurisdictions. As a result, we now have an Energy Strategy in Northern Ireland that distinctively calls out for geothermal development in the form of demonstrator and early deployment projects. Also, in Northern Ireland, at the direct request of a senior governmental energy advisor, we now have a Geothermal Advisory Committee, bringing local expertise and passion to the challenge.
In November the Irish government released its 2021 Climate Action Plan which contains lots of incentives for geothermophiles. Targets were set for the deployment of heat pumps in homes and businesses, emissions reduction in large buildings and industry and for district heating. Geothermal can play a big role in achieving all these targets.
Also in the Republic of Ireland, a draft of the Policy for Geothermal Energy was released in late December. There’s much to do in my opinion to develop this draft into the best in class policy that Ireland needs, but it’s fabulous to have the document in place and a consultation process available to collectively get to work.
In summary, attention is swinging towards the big challenge of decarbonizing heat in the battle to decelerate climate change. While geothermal may be more difficult to explain to the layman given its “out of sight” nature relative to wind and solar, I sense we have made great progress.
Thirdly, I want to acknowledge that there are geothermal projects of notable scale getting sanctioned and executed on the island. In August I personally visited the geothermal project that will heat the new building at Riddell Hall in the Queens University Belfast, and I hope to see the similar project in Trinity College during my next visit to Dublin.
There were several technology development projects in part supported by public money approved during 2021. Of course, because I’m involved, I can’t help myself call out the project sanctioned by the Center of Advanced Sustainable Energy to be led by Prof Neil Hewitt of Ulster University. This is CASE’s first geothermal project and will involve analysis of how geothermal can be used to decarbonise industry in Northern Ireland. We have a lot of scientific, engineering, social, and economic talent on this island and its super that they’re getting involved.
Priorities for 2022
Those are my big takeaways for 2021. What about 2022? What do we need to focus on? Here’s my view. Two requests from me to the reader – please let’s have a debate about these and please consider this an international conversation not just about the island of Ireland.
Priority 1: Accelerate deployment of proven technology
Shallow geothermal systems, providing space and water heating and cooling, have been used for decades around the world. The level of uptake country-to-country seems to be more a matter of fuel/electricity pricing, ambition/awareness and supply chain capability than geology or technology. Hence the United Kingdom (UK) and Ireland appear delinquent in the uptake of geothermal compared to countries like Sweden, even though the latter has cooler geothermal resources!
There are two main opportunities to pursue. The first involves at-scale installation of heat pumps in homes to replace fossil fuel boilers. This approach has received policy support from both UK and Irish governments. In my view a substantial proportion of domestic heat pumps should be ground source (GSHP, or shallow geothermal heat pump) rather than air source (ASHP), particularly where and when heat networks are being developed. The decision between GSHP and ASHP will involve a case-by-case discussion of the pros and cons of renewable heating solutions. Ireland needs a better choice of installation capability that can help consumers make those choices and then do a quality job of installing the solution.
The second shallow geothermal opportunity that we need to aggressively pursue in 2022 is larger-scale big building, energy park, factory and industrial cluster deployments. It’s a little bit ironic that Ireland once had one of the biggest shallow geothermal deployments in Europe – in the Ikea store in Dublin, but there have been few projects like this since its installation in 2008. Again, this appears to be as much about ambition/awareness and other factors, mentioned earlier, rather than technology and geology. My challenge to all developers and owners of bigger energy using facilities – why isn’t geothermal part of your clean energy solution? The challenge to our fledgling geothermal industry is for us to quickly build out the required capability and expertise to underpin this acceleration. We need to import much of that capability and expertise to accelerate our own development and deliver early projects in a quality and reputable way.
Priority 2: Ramp up the stakeholder engagement
As outlined above, geothermal got onto the radar screen of more and increasingly diverse stakeholders in 2021. We now must build momentum on that engagement.
For policymakers we need to continue to build the case for geothermal and specify the support we need from government, council and community to enable progress. In my view, the compelling case for geothermal in Ireland is the role that it must play in decarbonizing heat. Heat is around 40% of the energy challenge – as a source of emissions and a reliance on foreign resources that are inexorably becoming more expensive and less secure. Geothermal can play a huge role in the electrification of heat and given that Ireland’s grid electricity is already world class in terms of renewable energy (mainly wind) penetration, shallow geothermal or GSHP solutions will be 10% of the emissions of a fossil fuel equivalent. Moreover, being locally sourced geothermal heat is a secure source of energy – not relying on imports from foreign sources. Geothermal already has a fairly cost competitive Levelised Cost of Heat (LCOH) which can only get better with the experience of executed projects. Geothermal energy can therefore answer all three elements of the energy trilemma in being secure, affordable and clean.
I think another aspect of geothermal that we need to make policy makers understand is that in addressing our energy problems on the island of Ireland, we are also building capability to support energy decarbonization elsewhere in the world. With well-connected world class universities and colleges, a very well-educated workforce, and a business infrastructure to both attract foreign direct investment and export the solutions abroad we are well placed to take this on. It’s also an opportunity for cross-border collaboration. We also need to advise policymakers on the actions required to facilitate the at-scale deployment of geothermal on the island. With the energy strategy roadmap in Northern Ireland and the draft geothermal policy in the Republic of Ireland we have the process and the listening to make the right requests on economic structures and regulatory approach.
We have more to do to educate consumers, communities and other groups with an interest in a just and truly sustainable energy transition. We know from other experiences both in geothermal and in other resource sectors that the winning way is to openly engage with these stakeholders from the beginning so that we can transparently inform about the risks as well as the opportunities.
Priority 3: Participate, collaborate and integrate in geothermal technology and market development
Geothermal energy has been used for millennia around the world, particularly where hotter geothermal resources such as hydrothermal systems are close and visible at the surface. Technology development in the 20th century enabled electrical power generation from the hottest geothermal resources and then later binary organic Rankine cycle turbines allowed geothermal fluids warmer than 90º C, flowing at relative fast rates, to be utilized for electricity. However, these kinds of resources are still largely only viable in areas where the geothermal gradients are highest. For most of the world, these resources required for electricity currently remain too deep, or too difficult to identify, to be economically developable.
Therefore for geothermal’s potential to be realized, we clearly need further research, development and testing of the resources and the technology needed to develop the resources. Hence a focus for much of the growing global investment in geothermal is about technology development and resource delineation.
Irish research organisations and businesses should participate and collaborate with international peers in technology and resource imaging where there is a skills and contextual fit. For example, given Ireland’s diverse geology and globally average geothermal gradients it makes a lot of sense for Irish geoscientists to collaborate with their global peers to improve resource imaging, delineation and monitoring techniques and approaches. Are there places on the island or reachable offshore where subsurface hydrothermal convection or geological superconductors bring higher temperatures closer to the surface?
In contrast, Ireland’s relatively small petroleum industry and currently non-existent deep geothermal presence, we would be better to be a fast follower of drilling technology improvements being looked at in the USA for example. Innovation and optimization of shallow geothermal systems ought to be a focus for us, but again there is a lot to be learnt from other countries that are more advanced in the adoption of shallow systems. Closed Loop Geothermal (CLG) systems appear to be more suitable to our context than Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) given the latter’s need for fracture stimulation of rocks, a process no matter how inherently safe, remains a tough “sell” socially in many parts of the world, including Ireland and the UK.
These efforts need to be progressed in multi-disciplinary manner, with geoscientist, engineers, social scientists and economists working together to solve problems in an integrated manner. Similarly, business needs to collaborate with local and state government and academia to develop the geothermal market in Ireland. We need to adopt a holistic energy systems approach, always focused on the goal of clean, affordable and secure energy in a system of diverse sources and radically efficient uses for homes, businesses, public services, industry, agricultural, all of the built environment. Like all other energy options in the transition away from a fossil fuel dominated society, geothermal is not a panacea, but rather a piece – a very substantial one in my view – of the jigsaw
Simon Todd, January 2022