Geothermal energy, the Gostners’ bet (Fri-El Green Power)
An investment of 220 mln euros to unlock an energy revolution, that of geothermal energy, which can be worth at least 4 bn by ill 2030.
Attempting the feat is a family from Bolzano, the Gostners: two generations at the helm of Fri-El Green Power, a Group with more than 1,000 MW of installed energy capacity, including solar, wind, biogas, and hydro. Then again, hydroponic crops and even an airline based at Bolzano airport. Now the family has added a new piece: geothermal.
The idea, under the name ‘Project Pangea,’ came about in response to the needs of one of the Group’s plants, says engineer Ernst Gostner, Coo of Fri-El Green Power and Ad of the newco Fri-El Geo, which was created specifically for geothermal energy. These are the 30 hectares of greenhouses in Ostellato for hydroponic cultivation, which lowers soil consumption but needs heat and lots of electricity. The answer is a technology in Italy that has been historically neglected.
Yet, according to Fri-El engineers, geothermal energy could help meet Italy’s energy needs. The Gostners’ solution (suitable for homes but also industrial plants with not excessive consumption, such as, precisely, greenhouses) involves one well to extract the geothermal fluid and another to re-inject it between 4,500 and 5,700 meters deep, while a turbine is used to generate electricity by heating a bio-oil. Result: thermal energy (for district heating) and electricity (to be fed into the grid) through a closed, emission-free circuit, 24 hours a day. And, for the Ostellato greenhouses, 6-7 mln euros saved per year.
“Today, geothermal energy is used little and far from large population centers. Our solution, on the other hand, can heat large cities,” says Gostner. Some multi-utilities, which are crucial for connection to the district heating network, have already moved: contacts have begun with Turin, Brescia and Milan, says Ad. While in Pavia, the San Matteo Polyclinic and the University are affected.
For now, the Ostellato plant (operational by 2025) is in the exploratory well phase. For that alone, an expenditure of 40 mln euros of equity capital was needed(unlike other countries in Italy, “there is no bank that finances these operations: there is no track record,” says Gostner).
But Fri-El Geo is thinking big, and has already identified 100 potential projects in Italy, choosing the best 15 (plus 2 that have recently entered the pipeline through contracts), to be built by 2030. This would mean a total investment of 4 bn: the expense for each plant is about 220 mln, and of course it could not all fall on the shoulders of a Group that bills 620 a year. Subsidies are needed, the Ad says, in the form of an Energy Account, Capital Account or a well insurance mechanism covering 70 percent of the investment in case exploration is inconclusive.
It will have to wait for Fer 2, the measure that regulates incentives for less competitive electric renewables, such as geothermal. “We are confident that the ministry is convinced that the facilities are necessary,” says Ad, who met with Minister Gilberto Pichetto Fratin in January.