Vito drills deep under Flemish soil to tap geothermal energy


A pioneering energy project has kicked off in Flanders, as the region’s institute for technological research goes underground in search of sustainable ways of heating our homes and businesses

The power beneath our feet

A gigantic rig is gradually drilling up to about 4 kilometres under Flanders’ soil. It’s in search not of oil or gas, but the heat from the water deep below the Earth’s surface. The drilling in Mol, Antwerp province, is the first phase of a pioneering large-scale deep geothermal energy project in Flanders.

Geothermal energy is stored under our feet and originates from the formation of the planet, the decay of materials in the Earth’s crust or the friction from tectonic plates. If it’s deeper than 500 metres below the soil, it’s known as deep geothermal energy.

This natural phenomenon can be harnessed as a sustainable energy source by pumping up hot water, extracting the heat from it and pumping back the cooled water. Until recently, geothermal power plants were established in countries like Iceland where volcanic activity pushed the heat up in a natural way. But the progress of technology enables engineers in other places to tap heat from deep below the surface.

The Flemish Institute for Technological Research (Vito) has been preparing the region’s first large-scale deep geothermal energy project for about five years. The researchers first mapped in detail the deep subsurface of the Mol region to a depth of more than 4km, using seismic data obtained using ground impact systems known as thumper trucks. Vito’s prognosis is that hot water will be found at a depth of about 3.5km, at a temperature of more than 120 degrees Celsius.

The Kempen region, in the north of Antwerp and Limburg, is the most attractive area in Flanders for drilling because the hardest layers of rock are much lower there than they are elsewhere. 

Change of direction

To find out if its estimates are correct, a few weeks ago Vito launched a pilot project at its Balmatt site in Mol. In the past the site housed a factory that made polluting asbestos materials, but it could now become the base for a new method of eco-friendly energy production.

A team of about 20 engineers from the Flemish Smet Group drilling company and Germany’s THV Balmatt Drilling are working hard to get to the water hidden under many sedimentary layers. The 60m drilling rig at the Balmatt site – lovingly dubbed “The Beast” among the engineers – is among the most energy-efficient in Europe and doesn’t create noise pollution.

By 2050, we want to supply energy to the whole of the Kempen in Antwerp and Limburg

- Geert De Meyer

By December, the Vito researchers should have the information they need on the flow rate and temperature of the water under the Balmatt site. “If the water is at least 90 degrees Celsius, we can use it for heating purposes,” says Geert De Meyer, Vito’s geothermal development manager. “If it’s about 120 degrees, we can convert the heat to electricity.”

If the results of the pilot project are positive, a second drilling project will be launched in January. By next October, the energy would be used to heat the headquarters of Vito itself. “By 2017, the headquarters should be completely heated in a sustainable way,” says De Meyer. “Part of our electricity consumption should then also be covered by geothermal energy.”

The next goal is to provide energy to about 16,000 households in Mol and the nearby town of Dessel, in a few years. “By 2050, we want to supply energy to the whole of the Kempen in Antwerp and Limburg, an area of about 1,600km2,” says De Meyer. To reach this goal, there should be about 100 geothermal power plants set up in the Kempen by the middle of the century. Each power plant uses five wells, called production wells if hot water is pumped up from them and injection wells if they are used to dispose of cooled water.

The investment for the Balmatt project, resulting in an operating deep geothermal energy plant, would amount to €22 million. The exploratory drilling project, costing €7 million, is funded by Vito and the government of Flanders, which contributed €2 million. The construction of about 100 power plants is expected to require an investment of about €6 billion.

Limiting costs

Three Flemish ministers were present at the official start of the geothermal activity a few weeks ago: energy minister Annemie Turtelboom, environment minister Joke Schauvliege and economy minister Philippe Muyters.

Turtelboom underlined the importance of the experiment, given that approximately 45% of energy consumption in Flanders goes towards heating. She also emphasised the advantages over other renewable energy sources. “In contrast to solar and wind energy, geothermal energy can be produced continuously,” she said.

Schauvliege highlighted the uniqueness of geothermal energy in being “completely renewable, virtually free of greenhouse gas emissions, local and continuously available, flexible and easy to integrate in energy-efficient heating applications”.

According to De Meyer, families won’t have to pay higher energy bills if they’re connected to the geothermal energy network. “The electricity in itself will be more expensive, but we will be able to limit the costs for families by providing electricity with the produced heat,” he explains.

He also stresses that their system will increase safety. “By replacing natural gas, we also prevent the possibility of gas leaks,” he says.

Economic benefits

The geothermal energy will also benefit the economic fibre of Flanders and the Kempen. According to an estimate by Idea Consult bureau, the geothermal energy sector could directly create about 2,000 new jobs if 100 power plants are established. Indirectly, there could be many more, as the availability of the plants can encourage companies to cluster in the zone. 

In his speech at the start of the drilling, Muyters said he would support the development of business initiatives in the area. “We’re not only working to lower energy costs for Flemish businesses, but we literally want to anchor them in a sustainable way in Flanders,” he said.

We provide more independence from the price fluctuations of oil and gas supply

- Geert De Meyer

One of the companies showing interest in geothermal energy is Janssen Pharmaceutica from Beersel in the Antwerp Kempen region. Janssen plans to build its own geothermal power plant by 2017, which should have the production capacity of about four windmills and cover about half the company’s heat and electricity consumption.

“Our locally embedded service and expertise can convince other enterprises to come to or remain in the region, since we provide more independence from the price fluctuations of oil and gas supply,” says De Meyer.

De Meyer hopes the government will help to build the heat networks, which are necessary to provide the energy to homes and companies, by 2050. The required length of the heat networks is calculated to be about 24,000km and their construction would cost about €24 billion.

Vito is also calling on the government to modify the regional plan, because Vito has grounds with a surface area of about 220 hectares which are currently marked as “nuclear” – although Vito has no intention to develop any nuclear activity. Until this is changed, Vito cannot set up projects on these grounds or attract companies interested in the heat supply.

China calling

The researchers are also looking beyond the possibilities in the Kempen by developing an innovative drill bit that can drill into rock as quickly as into sand and limestone. A prototype has already been created with the University of Trondheim in Norway and the Technical University of Tomsk in Siberia.

The new drill bit now only goes to a depth of 300m but by the end of 2018, Vito hopes it will drill to a depth of 4 to 5km. Because drilling costs would then be at least halved, deep geothermal energy could also be possible in the rest of Flanders.

Another innovation in the pipeline is technology for carbon dioxide capture, which takes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converts it into industrial applications such as organic materials for the chemistry sector. “Our base here should become like an R&D centre for such initiatives,” says De Meyer.

The technological innovations are also being followed by China. A 50-member delegation including Liu Yandong, one of China’s three deputy prime ministers, was shown around the Balmatt site at the start of the pilot project by state secretary for science policy Elke Sleurs. The region around Beijing and Hebei province in China is also suitable for this form of renewable energy generation.

According to Vito, geothermal power plants there could supply Beijing with sufficient sustainable energy for much of its electricity and heating needs. This would be a large contribution in the fight against the smog problem in the city.

Flemish Institute for Technological Research (Vito)

Vito is an independent research organisation focusing on technological solutions to sustainable challenges. Its five main research areas are sustainable chemistry, energy, health, materials and land use.
EnergyVille - Together with the university of Leuven and IMEC, Vito founded EnergyVille, a research institute focusing on sustainable energy and intelligent energy systems.
Green - Through its promotion centre, Prodem, the institute has helped 700 small businesses find and develop more sustainable production methods.
Frontrunner - Vito is a European leader in the processing of hyperspectral images and the development of compact camera systems for earth observation.

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