Mon, 24 January, 2022
This blog presents the process of stakeholder engagement that led to the construction of the Balmatt geothermal plant in Mol (Belgium). VITO started the Balmatt project in November 2019 to give a new impetus to the development of deep geothermal energy in the northern part of Belgium.
VITO were far from the first to look for deep geothermal energy in the Belgian Campine region . The first exploration dates from the 1950s, when a geothermal exploration well was drilled in Turnhout. This drilling revealed the presence of a geothermal reservoir in the lower carboniferous limestones with good hydraulic properties and temperatures of almost 104 °C. The geothermal resource was, however, not further developed. In 1980–1981, a new geothermal project was launched in the northernmost part of the Campine region, close to the Dutch border. The well did not reach the lower carboniferous limestone group and was abandoned. Another attempt in Merksplas-Beerse in 1983 was more successful. The drilling provided a wealth of information, including hydraulic, chemical and radiological data. However, it did not result in the development of a geothermal plant.
VITO planned the Balmatt project as a standard exploration and development project. The approach was straightforward. Different stages were defined covering a pre-feasibility study, the exploration of the geothermal resource, a technical evaluation, the design of the well field, drilling of the wells, production testing and construction of the geothermal plant. Each stage had predefined goals and go/no-go decisions. The first three stages went according to plan. However, progress stalled after about two years. Based on the results of the seismic exploration and a technical evaluation of the geological and surface conditions, VITO had concluded that the development of a geothermal plant would be technically and economically feasible. The next step should be to drill an exploration well to verify the assumptions made in the business plan.
For more than a year, VITO tried to raise the money for the drilling, but the attempt was in vain. Up to that point, VITO had communicated the objectives and content of the project only to a limited group of stakeholders, mostly potential financiers. In January 2013, Grontmij, TNO and VITO started a project to evaluate the geothermal potential in the border region between Belgium and the Netherlands: INTERREG GEOHEAT.App. In the context of this project, VITO discussed its plans with the competent authorities, financiers and (geothermal) project developers. That cranked up the momentum for geothermal in Flanders. In parallel, the Flemish administration for land, soil and natural resources prepared an amendment of the decree on the deep subsurface. The amendment came into force on 1 January 2017. It created a legal basis for exploration and exploitation of geothermal resources in the deep subsurface of Flanders. It was an important step to create the confidence of financers and project developers in deep geothermal. With the amended decree in force, J&J were able to continue their plans for a geothermal heating grid at their site in Beerse (Geothermal Energy: ecological innovation | Janssen Belgium). In addition, a dedicated geothermal development company was founded with the financial support of three local captains of industry (Hita | Home).
By mid-2013 it became clear that the deep geothermal project could only be realised if it was integrated into the regional energy transition. To initiate the discussion at the regional level, the local Chamber of Commerce, the intercommunal company IOK and VITO started ERDF-project 910 – GEOTHERMIE 2020. With the project, the partners wanted to start a process in which the region resolutely chooses to use its unique geological position to provide itself with affordable and reliable energy in a sustainable way. The aim was to explain the technology and to create support for deep geothermal energy through the active participation of a broad group of stakeholders; entrepreneurs, (local) authorities, civil society organisations and citizens. By involving all of these parties in the process, the intended local impact of the transition experiment could be enhanced. At the same time, the added value of the efforts to develop deep geothermal in the Campine region could be increased by making the link to a roll-out over a larger area.
The social transition exercise was structured according to the principle of a transition agora. The rationale of the agora stated that, “If the Campine area wants to become the cradle of geothermal energy in Flanders and part of a larger energy transition story, this must be done in a well-considered, scientifically responsible but open and socially anchored way.” The transition agora became a meeting place to exchange information and talk about the energy transition. It was organised along four lines: informing, dialogue with competent authorities, policy makers and captains of industry, research, and open debate. The debates made the transition story explicit - it gave citizens and all other stakeholders involved the opportunity to gain insight into and share their views on the energy transition process and the technical aspects of deep geothermal. The agora also created a setting were all stakeholders could meet, reflect and discuss how they see the roll-out of geothermal energy in the Campine area and how they want to contribute to making the transition story a 'benefit-for-all' story.
In parallel, research was done to explore the potential role of deep geothermal in the energy transition of the Campine region. In this research, comments that arose in the debates were taken into account and, moreover, a dialogue was organised with the competent authorities. The goal of this dialogue was twofold: firstly, clarifying the permitting needs for the drilling of the exploration well and the construction of the geothermal co-generation plant and, secondly, defining points in the regulation that was applicable at the time that could be better tuned to deep geothermal.
The interaction with the local stakeholders proved to be crucial to boost the momentum for the project. The agora-approach sparked the interest of the Campine municipalities, the local Chamber of Commerce and the region in geothermal energy and district heating. On 9 May 2014, the Flemish government decided to financially support the drilling of the exploration well at Balmatt. Furthermore, geothermal and district heating were included in the local climate and energy plans. An evaluation of the possible macro-economic impact by Idea Consult concluded that geothermal, in combination with district heating, could generate new opportunities for local companies, bringing new jobs for about 1500 FTE . With the ambition to develop the economic potential and to realise the estimated contribution to the local climate and energy plans, geothermal district heating was also selected as one of the spear points for the development of the Campine region .
The Balmatt geothermal project offered a unique situation to create an environment that is supportive to the development of deep geothermal projects in Flanders. It also resulted in an ecosystem of people that believe in the potential of geothermal and district heating. Both the supportive environment and the ecosystem proved to be essential to build the Balmatt geothermal plant. The support by the local community and the financial support by the Flemish government made it possible to close the budget for MOL-GT-01. On 14 September 2015, the exploration well was spudded and the Balmatt project was again moving at full speed.
 economischeanalyse_rapport_geothermie2020.pdf (vito.be)
 RES15-003-dynak publicatie-web.pdf (streekplatformkempen.be)
Article courtesy: VITO (Belgium)