VITO - Start drilling one of the largest geothermal energy plants in Western Europe
Date: 24-09-2015
Chinese vice-premier and large Chinese delegation with 9 (vice-)ministers attend the start of the works on the Balmatt site

September 14, 2015 at 9 o’clock, the first drilling on the Balmatt site for the construction of the first deep geothermal energy plant in Flanders and Belgium took place. The start was attended by a pleiad of Flemish and international politicians. Besides the Flemish ministers Muyters, Schauvliege and Turtelboom, Mr. Wolfgang Clement was also present. Until 2002, Mr. Clement was Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia and from 2002 to 2005, Minister of Economic Affairs and Labour in the German Federal Government. However, a 50-member Chinese delegation led by Ms. Liu Yandong, one of the three Chinese Deputy Prime Ministers, the highest Chinese politician after Li Keqiang, Premier, and Xi Jinping, President. She was accompanied by nine ministers and vice-ministers and forty high Chinese functionaries and two ambassadors.

Start of the construction of one of the largest geothermal energy plants in Western Europe
With the drilling, VITO wants to measure the available output of hot water at a depth of approx. 4 km below the surface. On the basis of these data, a geothermal energy plant will be built. The expectations are high because even in a minimal version (where VITO researchers calculate with 90 % probability that a higher output and/or temperature will be found), the planned geothermal energy plant would be one of third largest in Western Europe, just after Iceland and Italy. In these countries, the deep subsurface is even more suitable for geothermal energy than in Germany or Belgium.

Flemish Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Finance, Budget and Energy, Annemie Turtelboom: “Approximately 45 percent of the Flemish energy consumption goes to heating. The combustion of polluting fossil fuels from abroad takes up 30 percent of this percentage. Deep geothermal energy could also make a contribution with its own resource of green heat. It also offers opportunities for the electricity supply. And that with the big advantage that it is a resource of renewable energy that, in contrast to solar and wind energy, continuously produces energy. Investments in geothermal energy keep businesses in our country, they literally anchor. Deep geothermal energy undoubtedly has a place in the Flemish energy mix of tomorrow.”

The potential for Flanders is therefore high. But also the region around Beijing and the Hebei province in China is eligible for this form of renewable energy generation. This explains the great interest by the Chinese delegation. The Chinese subsurface contains enough energy to provide Beijing with 100 % renewable energy including domestic heating. This would make a large contribution in the fight against the smog problem in the Chinese capital.

Opportunity for Flanders

VITO outlined an optimistic scenario, if the policymakers could approve or modify the necessary decrees, letting the Kempen, Antwerp and Limburg be largely self-sufficient in renewable electricity and heat without green energy certificates and this at prices lower than today and consistent for the next few decades. Experiences in Germany show that the price of geothermal heat only follows the (low) inflation and is not dependent on the fluctuations in the oil market.

VITO also wants to test CO2 capture and hydrogen production on the site after which CO2 and hydrogen will be converted, with the available geothermal heat and electricity, in new products. By 2020, this may result in a considerable reduction of CO2 emission in Flanders and new businesses can be set up in the region. VITO thereby requests a modification of the regional plan, because at this moment, the VITO grounds (over 220 ha) are marked as “nuclear” where VITO does not develop any nuclear activity nor will develop.

Extensive research

VITO has also shown a prototype of an innovative drill bit (6 meters long, 20 cm diameter and 300 kg in weight), which can drill into rock as fast as in sand and limestone. The drill bit has been developed in a collaboration between the University of Trondheim (Norway) and the Technical University of Tomsk (Siberia). The drill bit has already functioned to a depth of 300 meters. By the end of 2018, VITO wishes to further develop the technology to a depth of 4 to 5 km depth, and an ambient temperature of 240 °C. Because drilling costs would then be at least halved, deep geothermal energy could also be possible in the rest of Flanders.

These lower drilling costs could also be used for all other drilling operations, including oil and gas exploration and this could have a long-lasting effect on the global oil price. Other research institutions are looking for cost-effective drilling technologies with a similar effect on the oil price.

Philippe Muyters, Flemish Minister for Employment, Economy, Innovation and Sport: “This exploratory drilling is not only a wonderful research project, but also a source of innovation, sustainability and employment. I want to help businesses that are taking this initiative to take the first difficult hurdle by supporting the most risky investments. This way, we are not only working to lower energy costs for Flemish businesses, but we literally anchor them in a sustainable way in Flanders.”

Energy straight from earth

VITO has mapped the deep subsurface of the Mol region to a depth of more than 4 km. According to the results of the measurements, the researchers expect to find hot water at a depth of approx. 3,6 km, possibly even 124 °C hot. Via 2 wells they will pump up this hot water and pump back the cooled water. The extracted heat will be used for e.g. heating the VITO buildings. If, in a next phase, the water proves to be hot enough, they will try to produce electricity with it.

VITO expects to find sufficient temperature and output to supply in any case her own heating network with hot water of about 90 °C. In case the condition of the subsurface is very favourable, 2 to 3 additional drillings can be performed at the same location. As a result, large parts of Dessel and Mol-Donk can be supplied with hot water.

Flemish Minister of Environment, Nature and Agriculture, Joke Schauvliege: “Geothermal energy is virtually the only energy resource in Flanders that has the potential to, at the same time, be completely renewable, virtually free of greenhouse gas emissions, local and continuously available, variable employable and integrated in energy-efficient heating applications.”

More information on deep geothermal energy: