The dawn of geothermal energy
The relationship between mankind and the Earth’s energy has primeval roots. Since the stone age, men built their own dwellings near active geothermal areas to use by-products of volcanic activities, harnessing heat to cook and… enjoying the benefits of thermal baths!
Etruscans built most of their villages near geothermal vents and used their by-products like alabaster, travertine, iron oxides and, thermal muds as bargaining chips. The oldest remains of the Sasso Pisano Etruscan thermal complex in Tuscany, actually date back from the III century BC.
The passion for spas and baths is one of many quirks the Etruscans passed on to the Romans. Tuscany and its “Valley of the Devil” came to prominence for its natural geysers and fumaroles. Aquas Volaternas and Aque Populanie – today’s Larderello and Sasso Pisano – feature as major thermal baths in the “Tabula Peutingeriana”, the Roman Empire’s own road map.
After the demise of the Roman Empire, thermal baths and the use of by-products of geothermal energy experience a strong decline for a good part of the Middle Ages.
An “infernal” inspiration
“Versan le vene le fummifere acque / per li vapor che la terra ha nel ventre / che d'abisso li tira suso in alto”. Such a poetical description of Larderello’s environs was crafted by none other than Dante in his book of rhymes. Was Dante probably inspired by its own native land to create his masterpiece - the Inferno?
The Tuscan renaissance
Balneotherapy and the use of hydrothermal minerals and other by-products of earth’s heat saw a gradual comeback in Italy, especially in Tuscany. Following a period of local skirmishes between the towns of Florence and Volterra in what is known to this day as the “Borax Territory”, the Medici Family took control of this piece of land and its geothermal resources.
Giving health a chance
In the Tuscan geothermal hotspots of Monterondo Marittimo and Castelnuovo Val di Cecina, Boric acid is discovered, representing a breakthrough for its widespread medical application in the treatment of eye diseases. Hence, the fine-tuning of the extraction process becomes an important task to be performed.
De Larderel’s covered lagoon
French engineer and entrepreneur François Jacques De Larderel develops a technique to collect steam from the lagoons - large ground cracks filled with boiling water seeping from hot underground rocks - through the use of a “covered lagoon”. A brick hemispheric cupola placed over the lagoon is able to capture the steam to use it as a heat source to power the boilers needed to extract boric acid from muds and slushes.
A journey through the subsoil
To build up from De Larderel’s work came the Italian engineer Vincenzo Manteri. He’s the man in charge of the first drilling operations to increase the extraction rate of steam from the subsoil.
Larderello is up and running
The Grand Duke of Tuscany - Leopold II - recognizes the merits of De Larderel and appoints him Count of Montecerboli. The burgeoning industrial complex associated with geothermal energy was then named after him to Larderello.
The heat is on
The industrial use of geothermal energy goes beyond Italy. In the American town of Boise, the first urban heating system is inaugurated.
Geothermal energy becomes electricity
Pietro Ginori Conti, General Manager of the Larderello facility in 1894, manages to turn on the first five geothermal-powered light bulbs, thanks to a contraption made up of a reciprocating engine coupled to a dynamo.
The Italian record
The world’s first geothermal power plant goes online: Italy’s Larderello 1.
Japan, the United States, and Iceland
Italy’s example is soon followed by other countries. Japan’s first geothermal drilling is performed in 1921 near the town of Beppu. The United States follow suit in 1921 with California’s The Geysers power plant. Around 1928, Iceland starts harnessing geothermal fluids - especially hot water - to heat its households.
Destruction and reconstruction
The Larderello 2 power plant goes online. During WW2, all infrastructure in the Borax territory was destroyed. After the reconstruction period, the third power plant in Larderello becomes the world’s most powerful. Installed power reaches 127,650 kW.
Geothermal energy in the world
Geothermal energy is in full expansion mode. New Zealand opens its first geothermal power plant. Mexico follows suit the next year and many other countries go along this route.
The binary cycle breakthrough
The Soviet Union showcases its binary cycle power plant model: the geo-fluid transfers heat to a second fluid that works in a closed cycle inside the power plant, operating as a boiler. Once cooled, the geothermal fluid is re-injected in the subsoil. This technology allows generating electricity from hot rocks at lower temperatures, hence fostering the widespread use of geothermal power, albeit at lower yields.
The Geysers are record-breaking
California’s The Geysers geothermal power plant breaks the world’s geothermal energy production record, with a total installed capacity of 2,043 MW.
Multi-purpose Geothermal energy
Geothermal energy is a renewable source with great potential and a well-established track record. It also finds good use in heat pumps: from balneology to indoor heating, to greenhouses, aquaculture, and other industrial uses.
Heat becomes green energy
An incredible potential
Since 2006, a report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology highlights how the planet’s potential for geothermal energy could provide clean energy for roughly 4000 years.
Unlimited and constant
Day, night, sun or rain: none of these conditions has any impact on geothermal operations. Hence, the Earth’s heat is always fully and readily available.
Low management costs
Once a geothermal plant goes online, its management costs are significantly lower compared to other technologies.