Baseload, Geothermal, Offshore

China Turns to Geothermal Energy To Tackle Carbon Emissions

Issue 5 and Volume 17.

The UN has amplified its warning about carbon emissions as of late, stating that climate change is indeed real, and may very well be irreversible if countries do not act now. Since its latest declarations, all eyes are now focused on the world’s biggest carbon polluters, and China tops the list.

To combat its carbon critics while also supporting its rapid growth and development, China decided to kill two birds with one stone and focus its energy on developing renewables — fast. In the first half of this year alone, China installed more than 3 GW of solar capacity, ramped up its offshore wind development, and invested billions in electric vehicle adoption. But despite this progress, China still has a long way to go, so in July it announced that it would open the door to a technology that has been mostly shut out of the country for more than a decade: geothermal. 

Replacing Baseload with Baseload

China’s booming population and energy demand call for cheap, stable electricity, which is why it accounts for nearly 50 percent of global coal use.  As it develops intermittent wind and solar projects in order to reduce its emissions and control air pollution, it still has a need for stable, baseload power. China is not alone in this endeavor — many countries, including the U.S. and Germany, are looking to stabilize their grids and believe geothermal energy is a viable answer. 

“Geothermal is in a very good position when looking at emission goals because it is a one-two punch,” said vice president of business development at Ormat Bob Sullivan. “As we build renewables into the electrical grid we find that because of intermittency you have to back them up and have flexible resources. Geothermal can do that without a carbon footprint. When you back solar and wind up with a green resource you get bigger bang for your buck — a one-two punch.”

China has realized both its need for rapid renewable development and a reduction in carbon emissions, and announced plans for a geothermal energy development plan.  

Government Support

The Chinese government is culling together plans for comprehensive geothermal development in conjunction with its 13th five-year plan, which covers the years 2016-2020. As part of this plan, it hopes to develop 100 MW of geothermal by 2015 in northern, central and southwest China. It will initially focus on high-temperature resources, them move to low- and medium-temperature applications.

According to the National Energy Administration, it will focus on “the development of deep geothermal district heating projects, large-scale promotion of shallow geothermal energy development, and the utilization of geothermal energy demonstration construction projects while exploring suitable areas for local development.”

In order to speed this growth along, the government will establish a national geothermal energy data and information system by next year. This system will be similar to National Geothermal Data System recently developed by the U.S. Department of Energy. These resources aggregate information such as geological resources, policy incentives, and permitting processes into one database to help speed along the development of geothermal projects.

Not only will this database help build geothermal electrical generating capacity, but it will also forward the government’s initiative to ramp up geothermal heating and cooling systems. According to recent legislation, China hopes to offset a major portion of its coal consumption, which accounts for 66 percent of its energy use, with geothermal heat pumps (GHP). In fact, geothermal has the potential to completely replace the nation’s coal-heating systems. Demonstration projects in Beijing have shown that GHPs will be a major player in reducing carbon emissions, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

A Range of Opportunity

To date, China has 25 MW of installed geothermal capacity. However several regions, such as Tibet and Yunnan, have vast potential. According to geologists, the land along the Himalayas, which extends into Tibet and nearby Nepal, holds the greatest potential. 

“The hottest and best known of the geothermal systems are in Jammu and Kashmir, which form part of the northwest Himalayan ‘geothermal province’ that extends through Nepal and Tibet,” said geologist at the Energy and Geosciences Institute, University of Utah, Geo Moore during an energy conference in India. “I hope lessons from elsewhere in the world can help harness these resources in the Himalayas.”

These areas have previously faced development barriers. Much of the high-temperature resources are on a collision zone of two continental plates and volcanic zones, making drilling very difficult. Resources are also located at higher altitudes, which is costly for equipment transportation. 

However, according to a resource assessment report released by MIT, many of these barriers have been overcome with improvements in technology. And with the recently announced government support, many in the industry are hopeful for new development. Strides in the development of enhanced geothermal technologies (EGS), which exploits resources in dry rock with hydraulic stimulation, may open far more resource potential throughout the country, according to the report. 

Direct-use geothermal has gained much more traction in China. One of its biggest success stories is the city of Xianyang in Shaanxi provice, known as China’s “Geothermal Energy City.” Xianyang began developing its hot water resources with temperatures ranging from 55° to 120°C in the 1990’s and now has 30 wells used for heating, hot water and other recreational activities. Geothermal has so far offset nearly 150,000 tons of CO2 emissions annually, according to a report released by the United Nation University in Iceland. 

Earlier this year, the Xianyang government signed a memorandum of understanding with Iceland-based geothermal developer Okra Energy and China-based petroleum developer Sinopec Group, to pool resources and further develop the geothermal district heating system.

“[The] delegation…was satisfied with the Sino-Icelandic geothermal cooperation and spoke highly of the progress,” according to a release from Sinopec. “He also expressed [willingness] that Iceland would strengthen cooperation with Xianyang City in respect of [pollution] treatment, geothermal exploration and tourism.”

Geothermal is a viable renewable energy answer that can both reduce emissions and improve economies — exactly what China needs. “Geothermal has all the attributes of a coal facility. It provides very reliable baseload power to count on day in and day out and provides jobs for a better economy.”