Geothermal energy is the energy contained as heat in the Earth’s interior. Though not new, the use of subsurface heat is an often forgotten, renewable energy source in Belgium. About 10.000 years ago, local tribes in Northern America already used hydrothermal sources for purification rituals and to cook food. But also in our modern society, the use of geothermal energy gains importance. In Italy, for example, electricity is generated from geothermal resources since 1904. Recent technological progress have made the exploitation of geothermal energy an attractive and viable alternative. It furthermore is one of the most environmental-friendly and cost-effective energy resources and has the potential to help mitigate pollution if widely deployed in place of fossil fuels.

In Flanders, efforts to deploy geothermal applications are still limited when compared to neighboring regions and countries. This is especially true with regard to deep geothermal projects. Best known are a series of test wells in the early 80’s in the Campine area and in the region of Mons. The lowering of the oil price in the late 80’s however killed again most of these efforts. Only in the region of Mons, a deep geothermal system remained in place and is still in use today for a series of social houses, schools, a swimming pool, sports centre, hospitals, greenhouses and a train station through a district heating network. At this moment, the project is even at the transition towards larger scale activities in the region.

The early 80’s pilot test projects demonstrated that geothermal energy has a potential and can be developed in Belgium. The projects in the Mons area proves that, under certain circumstances, such projects are profitable and a viable alternative for traditional heating solutions. In the light of the current energy challenges, increasing oil and gas prices and growing attention for renewable energy sources, geothermal energy will play a prominent role.

VITO has foreseen this trend. Since 1998, VITO is actively involved in new developments in geothermy in Belgium and the Netherlands. Initially, attention was focused on the use of shallow, low-temperature energy storage systems, often in combination with heat pumps. In 2005, these activities were taken over by a spin-off company, Terra Energy NV. VITO now focuses its own research on large-scale energy storage systems in relation to quarter or district heating and on deep geothermal energy applications. Following a number of feasibility studies, efforts are now put in concrete realizations (PDF).

With this research, VITO aims to answer the following questions:

  • How much renewable geothermal energy can be gained from the subsurface on which time scale?
  • What can we use geothermal energy for?
  • How can we optimally make use of this energy source?
  • How can we develop and deploy geothermal energy everywhere?
  • How can electricity be gained from geothermal energy in an area like Belgium, where no positive heat anomalies exist in the subsurface?
  • How can geothermal energy contribute to the European objectives on climate and energy and reduce our reliance on supplies from foreign countries?
  • How can geothermal energy and large-scale energy storage systems be used in green heat networks and the tuning of the heating and cooling supply and demand.

VITO plays an important role in new developments in the field of geothermal energy in Flanders and beyond. By combining and integrating the expertise from different research groups, VITO can respond to nearly any research question concerning geothermy or heat networks. In addition, the project group Geology and natural resources relies on a long-term experience in the field of this subsurface heat source. This expertise covers both feasibility studies, the organization and coordination of exploration campaigns as well as the mapping of the 3D subsurface structure and guidance of clients in the set-up of concrete projects.