Two centuries of geothermal industry, an Italian first
Beethoven was beginning to think about composing the Ninth Symphony. Napoleon was languishing on St. Helena. Mary Shelley had just published Frankenstein. This was the world in 1818, when the heat of the earth was transformed into industry, in a pre-unification Italy that was still divided into many states.
A young engineer and the birth of geothermal industry
Francesco Giacomo Larderel was a young engineer and entrepreneur of French origin who had moved to Livorno, which was part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany at the time. Close by is the area of the boracic geysers, where the thermal waters had been famed since the times of the Roman Empire, and where, in 1777, the German chemist Hubert Franz Hoefer had discovered boric acid.
Larderel’s first great idea was to extract boric acid to produce boron for chemical and pharmaceutical uses. His second, which was to prove even more important, was the elaboration of a practical method for extracting boric acid in abundant quantities for reasonable prices. On 8 May 1818, exactly 200 years ago, the engineer established his plant in Montecerboli: that date marked the day that his dream came true and the global geothermal industry came into being.
Over the following years, Larderel was able to perfect his technique, gradually increasing the productivity of his plant. He used his earnings to build a palace and, in recognition for his scientific achievements, was granted the title of Count by the Grand Duke, who also renamed the area where it all began Larderello.
Five light bulbs
Larderel could not, however, have predicted the developments that his scientific venture would inspire. The next great step forward took place almost a century later. It was pioneered by Piero Ginori Conti, the heir to both Larderel’s company and his inventive spirit: his idea was to exploit geothermal vapour as a source of energy. On 4 July 1904 he used a simple generator consisting of a dynamo running off geothermal heat to successfully turn on five light bulbs.
It was a turning point for the geothermal industry, which passed from chemical use to energy source. It was also an important marker in the history of electricity and sustainability: for the first time ever, man had generated electricity using the renewable resources from the Earth’s interior.
Larderello became the first capital of the geothermal industry: in 1911, a geothermal plant was established, the first in the world and, for decades, the only such plant existing on an industrial scale. By 1916, the plant was able to meet the electricity needs not only of Larderello, but also of nearby Volterra.
Enel Green Power’s geothermal innovations
Today, continual technological innovation has made geothermal energy a sustainable solution used in numerous countries and has given it a special place among the Enel Group’s renewable source success stories.
“It may be 200 years since she made her first appearance, 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 allows us to take innovative paths and to constantly improve activity on all fronts, from the efficiency of the structures to digitalisation processes and environmental positioning”
Massimo Montemaggi, Head of Geothermal Energy, Enel Green Power
The latest Enel addition in this sector is the Cerro Pabellón plant in Chile: it is the first geothermal centre in South America and the highest in the world. Inaugurated in 2017 in Ollagüe on the Andean plateau, it uses the most advanced technologies and will be integrated with wind turbines and photovoltaic plants: thanks to advanced storage units, it will become the centre of an independent and self-sufficient distribution network.
The integration of geothermal energy with power from other renewable sources is, after all, one of the most distinctive characteristics of Enel Green Power innovation. The Stillwater plant in Nevada is the first in the world to combine three different technologies: geothermal, solar thermal and photovoltaic – uniting the energy of the Sun and the Earth. This solution increases the quantity of electric power produced, while avoiding the need for multiple infrastructures and further reducing the environmental impact.
In Nevada’s neighbouring state, Utah, technological integration is even more closely entwined: the geothermal plant in Cove Fort is boosted with extra power from a hydroelectric generator that reuses the water in the geothermal well, thereby contributing to its stability and increasing production.
The technology introduced into the region where the geothermal industry began is similarly integrated: in Castelnuovo Val di Cecina in Tuscany, Enel combined the geothermal centre Cornia 2 with a biomass plant, creating a unique complex, the first of its kind in the world. The biomass comes from the surrounding forests (no more than 70 km from the plant) and is used to heat the geothermal vapour to increase the overall power of the structure.
Past and future
We returned to the cradle of the geothermal industry to celebrate its bicentenary. We organised a two-day event, on 7 and 8 May, with CNR to celebrate the anniversary and to provide further information on the theme of sustainable geothermal energy: a conference in Pisa and a guided tour of Larderello.
The double appointment emphasises the importance of combining awareness of the future with that of the past. It’s a fitting way to remember the pioneering enterprise of Larderel and promote the further development of geothermal industry: two centuries of history and a future of sustainability.