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Geothermal Energy: Germany’s Potential for Carbon-Neutral Heating

Geothermal Energy: Germany’s Potential for Carbon-Neutral Heating 

Geothermal energy is being hailed as a promising solution for renewable heating in Germany, with significant potential to reduce carbon emissions. Munich, home to the famous Oktoberfest, is utilising geothermal energy by extracting hot water from underground sources beneath the fairground, powering a massive geothermal plant that supplies heat to around 80,000 local residents. This hidden energy source has gained attention as Germany grapples with how to transition away from gas-fired boilers in new homes, a move aimed at curbing CO2 emissions from the heating sector. 

Geothermal Energy Revolution

Heating constitutes over 50% of Germany’s total energy consumption, and a staggering 85% of this heating is currently reliant on fossil fuels. To achieve its ambitious goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2045, the German government needs to tackle emissions from the heating sector. The ban on new gas boilers is a central strategy to address this issue, but there’s an additional aspect: municipalities are now required to identify and adopt eco-friendly heating sources. 

Munich has taken a lead in the pursuit of carbon-neutral district heating, with plans in place to leverage geothermal energy. The city’s commitment to this endeavour dates back over a decade, aiming to become the first major German city with entirely carbon-neutral district heating. Rolf Bracke, an expert from the Fraunhofer Institution for Energy Infrastructures and Geothermal Systems, believes that deep geothermal sources could potentially supply a significant portion of Germany’s heating needs—between 200 to 400 Terawatt hours (TWh) of energy annually, covering around 25% of the demand in towns and cities. 

The process of harnessing geothermal energy involves drilling boreholes into subterranean aquifers, which are water reservoirs located between 1 to 3 kilometres underground. Hot water is pumped to the surface, and its heat is transferred to non-thermal water through heat exchangers. This heated water is then used for residential heating. While the technology has been around for a long time (over 150 years), the real challenge lies in locating the optimal drilling sites where the rock’s porosity is highest and water availability is greatest. 

Current and Future Innovation

Bavaria’s geothermal journey began in the 1980s, when prospectors drilling for oil discovered hot water instead. Since then, the region has seen the development of 29 geothermal projects, capitalising on the Molasse basin’s geological features, which enable water to flow through fractured limestone layers. Bavaria now dominates Germany’s geothermal power output, contributing nearly 80% of the country’s installed capacity. 

Despite Bavaria’s advancements, experts believe that Germany’s geothermal potential remains largely untapped. The focus has mainly been on areas already explored for oil and gas, like Bavaria, leaving much of the country unexplored. Some experts speculate that major metropolitan areas like Berlin and Aachen could also have untapped aquifers beneath them, indicating the widespread applicability of geothermal energy. 

Innovation continues in this field. Canadian company Eavor Technologies is launching a project in Bavaria that employs a “closed-loop” system, where water is circulated through a U-shaped well, naturally heated by the underground rock before being brought back to the surface for heating. This approach offers versatility, applicable in various geological settings. 

Christian Pletl, a representative from Munich utility SWM, emphasises that the potential for geothermal energy is virtually unlimited. As the quest for sustainable heating gains momentum, Germany’s exploration of geothermal sources is poised to play a crucial role in achieving its climate goals. 

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