The geothermal industry, two centuries of Italian excellence
Which country witnessed the birth of opera? Italy, obviously. Which country is home to the most UNESCO World Heritage sites? Italy, it’s well known. Which country produces the most wine? Italy, again. And in which country was the earth’s inner heat transformed into an industry? Yes, Italy.
Italy’s artistic, gastronomic and wine-making prowess is rightly celebrated around the world, yet the country’s scientific and industrial records are equally important. Records like the first industrial use of geothermal energy, one of the first renewable sources to be harnessed for industrial and energy purposes.
A young engineer
8 May 1818. In Montecerboli, then part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, Francesco Giacomo Larderel, a young engineer and entrepreneur of French origin, began work to achieve his dream: to create the world’s first facility capable of extracting boric acid from geothermal vapour in order to produce boron for pharmaceutical and chemical use.
Lardarel’s endeavours marked the start of the geothermal industry. As is always the case, this beginning did not happen by accident. The thermal waters in Tuscany were well known and appreciated by the Romans and boric acid was first identified in nearby Monterotondo Marittimo in 1777.
Larderel, however, made two significant advances: planning the industrial use of geothermal vapour and inventing an efficient extraction technique. In reward, Grand Duke Leopold II granted him the title of Count and another well-deserved honour: the global birthplace of geothermal industry, near the municipality of Pomarance in the province of Pisa, was renamed Larderello.
From Larderello to the world
Since then, Larderello has featured in many more geothermal records. On 4 July 1904, Piero Ginori Conti, heir to Larderel’s estate, managed to light five light bulbs with a generator that consisted of a dynamo running on geothermal heat. For the first time in history, man was generating electricity from the renewable sources available in the heart of the earth.
What followed kept faith with the original aspirations for the project. In 1911, Larderello became the site of a fully-fledged geothermal power plant: the first in the world and, for decades, the only such plant existing on an industrial scale. By 1916, the facility was able to supply power for the area of Lardarello and also for the city of Volterra.
Today, the area of Larderello, in the province of Pisa, is one of the centres of the global geothermal industry: the geothermal plants in the area, managed for our Group by Enel Green Power, create a total power of 800 MW and supply electricity for over 10,000 users, including private residences, public services and industrial activities. Between the provinces of Pisa, Siena and Grosseto, there are 34 EGP geothermal plants that together supply over 30% of Tuscany’s electricity needs with renewable and sustainable energy.
Techniques have become increasingly innovative. In Castelnuovo Val di Cecina for example, Enel integrated a geothermal centre with a biomass plant, creating a highly innovative facility for producing electricity from two different renewable sources, the first of its kind in the world. Furthermore, five Tuscan municipalities (Pomarance, Castelnuovo Val di Cecina, Monterotondo Marittimo, Santa Fiora, Monteverdi Marittimo) use geothermal power for heating.
“Two hundred years may have passed, but the elegant, elderly lady that is geothermal power maintains a young spirit, thanks to her unwavering vocation to innovation and sustainability. Technological excellence in the geothermal sector enables us to pursue innovative paths and to constantly improve activity on all fronts, from the efficiency of the structures to processes of digitalisation and environmental positioning”
– Massimo Montemaggi, Head of Geothermal Energy, Enel Green Power
Emboldened by these experiences, and by two centuries of Italian geothermal industry, we have taken our technology to the rest of the world. In 2017, we inaugurated the geothermal centre, Cerro Pabellón, in Ollagüe on the Andean plateau in Northern Chile, the first in South America and the highest in the world.
In the United States, we built two futuristic plants that integrate different renewable sources: Stillwater, in Nevada, combines geothermal, solar thermal and photovoltaic power while Cove Fort, in Utah, employs geothermal and hydroelectric technologies. Two examples of excellence that position our Group at the forefront of geothermal technology.
However, in all this, we have never lost sight of our origins. The Geothermal Museum was established in the 1950s in the historic palace that belonged to Count Larderel in Larderello. The museum recounts the story of the establishment, developments and advantages of geothermal energy: in 2017, we opened a new wing, which is used for visitor groups and accessible by reservation only.
The museum is an integral part of the geothermal tourist circuit and has contributed to the creation of a new niche market, which further adds to the attraction of Tuscany as a destination. In 2017 alone, there were more than 60,000 geothermal tourists. The itinerary includes the Biancane Park with its rocks that have been whitened by geothermal vapour, the Fumarole Park in Sasso Pisano, the boracic geysers at San Federigo and a guided tour of the Enel Green Power plants of Bagnore 3 and Bagnore 4, complete with informative panels as part of a display for visitors, and, of course, the museum itself. In 2017, the “Open Plants” event organised by EGP allowed tourists to visit the geothermal plant of Chiusdino in the province of Siena.
EGP together with CNR (the National Research Council) organised a two day event, involving a conference in Pisa and a guided tour of Larderello, to celebrate the geothermal bicentenary on 8 May and to provide further information on the theme of sustainable geothermal energy. A fitting way to remember the pioneering enterprise of Larderel and the scientific excellence of Italy of yesteryear and today.