Wednesday 17 November 2010

Opportunities to exploit geothermal energy begin to heat up

Opportunities to exploit geothermal energy begin to heat up

Clean energy, like other new sectors before it, offers hope of new employment, new businesses, and new solutions. For example, adaptation to climate change will require novel solutions that can and should be developed by Australian manufacturers who are under immense pressure elsewhere from a rising dollar and cheap offshore labour costs. However, successful solutions can often take decades to be implemented and mature.

How will innovative geothermal solutions feature in the clean energy equation? Geothermal energy, extracted from heat stored in the earth, is clean and sustainable yet initial set-up and operational outlays such as drilling and exploration costs can be expensive.

However, recent developments in technology have increased the scope for geothermal energy to include among other uses, heating applications in residential properties. Known as ground-source heat pumps, these advancements have increased geothermal energy�s overall potential in the renewable energy spectrum. Already in Perth, a number of buildings and pools are tapping into this underground heat source for direct use of the heat, reducing the use of electricity from fossil fuels. Meanwhile, in other parts of Australia, deep wells are being drilled into hot aquifers and hot rocks to generate steam to drive turbines to generate electricity.

Yet more needs to be done to improve geothermal energy�s value to the market and increase the utilisation of this renewable energy source. As in the early years of other new sectors that preceded it, the geothermal energy �value chain� is still too fragmented for broad uptake. One activity intended to fast-track solutions is the AIC�s R&D Forum and TechClinic� process, a methodology that intentionally brings together participants from all parts of the potential value chain, even where it may not yet exist. The value chain shows the various participants that each progressively add value to an input to eventually create a usable product or service in the market.

AIC R&D Forums and TechClinics� bring together researchers, technology providers, potential end-users of research and other significant stakeholders (e.g. regulators, supply chain members, government agencies) to explore opportunities whereby industry capability and R&D activities can be leveraged to meet end-users� existing or future needs.

In 2009 the AIC was contracted by the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Resources, through its Enterprise Connect Clean Energy Innovation Centre (CEIC), to deliver a series of R&D Forums and TechClinics� to accelerate innovation in the development of a clean energy industry in Australia. These events are conducted in partnership with the Western Australian Sustainable Energy Association and Newcastle Innovation.

Such an R&D Forum was recently held in Perth to identify the most promising technology options available to improve geothermal energy�s value to the market and increase the utilisation of this renewable energy source. The forum focused on addressing �What are the most promising technology options and enhancements available to improve geothermal energy�s value to the market so as to facilitate further use of this renewable resource?�.

The purpose of the forum was to identify the technology issues and gaps that will need to be addressed in order to meet the perceived expectations of consumers and industry users. Furthermore, the forum aimed to identify the needs of energy suppliers and developers, and sought to highlight progress towards addressing the current and emerging market needs.

To inform the planning of the forum the AIC also undertook a preliminary Value Chain Mapping exercise to understand the various players and influencers affecting the development and commercialisation of such solutions.

During the forum, a number of specific opportunities were identified. These offered the prospect of communicating geothermal energy demonstration projects in several states, and working with the education sector to focus on capability building to address the key industry skills needed. It was also identified that Landcorps, developers and potential users could then be coupled with the geothermal sector to explore Direct Use geothermal opportunities in their new housing, industrial and commercial developments.  It was agreed that there appeared a real market opportunity in this area.

Following further research and consultation with industry and the research sector regarding Direct Use geothermal, the AIC and its CEIC partners commenced planning a TechClinic� focused on further exploring the Direct Use geothermal opportunity.  The TechClinic� brought together the various players that constitute the value chain for application of Direct Use geothermal in new housing, industrial and commercial developments.  This follow-on public industry workshop took place in Melbourne on the 30th November 2010.

This time, the focus was less on R&D and more on what needed to be done to increase the uptake of direct use systems for heating (and cooling) in the Australian market. Many of the challenges related to limited awareness, lack of Australian standards, and the absence of incentives, rather than technological barriers. For example, there are no renewable energy credits for geothermal direct heat use projects.

However, one of the greatest outcomes of the AIC TechClinic process is that it achieves cooperation along the value chain to overcome such obstacles, and this time proved no exception. Attendees from industry associations, universities, manufacturers, and governments volunteered to work jointly on agreed action items to help remove them, and move the industry forwards. Collaboration is a sure way to innovate, and the seeds of a novel industry for Australia have been sown.


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