China-Belgium cooperation to bring geothermal boost

Source:Global Times Published: 2018/10/29 19:53:39

Dirk Fransaer Photo: Courtesy of VITO

Editor's Note:

China and the EU have been making joint efforts to boost the transition toward clean energy. With further cooperation and research, it is expected that renewable energy will become competitive with fossil fuel in terms of prices in the near future. Of the various types of clean energy, geothermal energy is stable and less influenced by weather conditions. It also has great potential in China but has been largely untapped so far. On October 18, while Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was attending the 12th Asia-Europe Meeting Summit in Belgium, the seminar for the first Sino-Belgian Green Energy Day was held by the Embassy of Belgium in Beijing. Global Times reporter Zhou Zheng (GT) interviewed Dirk Fransaer (Fransaer), managing director of VITO, a European independent research and technology organization focusing on sustainable energy and environmental protection technologies, to discuss the possibilities for geothermal energy in China.

GT: China is determined to tackle pollution and is switching from coal to natural gas. Among all the green energy options, what advantages do you see in geothermal energy? What is the potential for it to be further developed in China?

Fransaer: Geothermal energy is greener. When you burn gas, it also produces CO2, but geothermal energy is CO2-free. With geothermal energy, you can generate both heat and electricity. And the cost of using it to generate heat is less than for gas.

So you have all the economic and ecological benefits. Another advantage is that it is extremely stable, compared with other forms of green energy such as wind and solar power, which depend more on the weather conditions.

But you need to use geothermal energy where you have a cluster of people living. So typically, urban areas would be a good place. In Beijing, for instance, there is a central heating system. You have all the heat networks already in place, fired simply from a coal plant, although now there is a transition to gas instead. To switch to geothermal energy, the only thing you need to do is drill some holes in the ground and there you go. So in China, it would be easy and cheap to use this form of energy.

It is also important for countries to be less reliant on imported energy.

GT: What is the current situation in terms of cooperation on geothermal energy between China and European countries?

Fransaer: China and Europe both want to tackle climate change and adopt clean energy. In the EU, there are countries like Iceland that have formed joint ventures with Chinese companies to develop geothermal energy to supply heat. Some demonstration projects have been built in Xi'an, Northwest China's Shaanxi Province and in the county of Xiongxian, which is part of Xiongan New Area. The Chinese government and governments in European countries have paid a lot of attention to it, but the cooperation on geothermal energy is still in the early stages.

GT: VITO has expressed interest in joining the pilot project in Xiongan New Area. Why target Xiongan?

Fransaer: We are already working in Xiongan to build a model to avoid water pollution for Baiyangdian Lake. Xiongan New Area will be a demonstration area representing the future of China. Also, the geology situation in Xiongan is very comparable with our pilot project in Mol, Belgium. Sinopec has been using geothermal energy to supply heat in the region and we would very much like to see it implemented in Xiongan.

GT: What needs to be considered regarding building a geothermal project in Xiongan?

Fransaer: There are many things to consider. VITO has experience in studying geothermal energy wells in depleted oilfields. The basic geological situation of the area will decide if it makes sense to build a geothermal plant there. So first of all, we need a team of geologists to interpret and analyze the geology data to minimize any risks. Geologists can also tell where to drill the wells.

Also, when building geothermal plants, the right type of Organic Rankine Cycle (ORC) system needs to be applied. VITO doesn't manufacture these systems, but we know which would be the right ones to use.

The water you pump into the generator may contain radiation and salt or heavy metal, which is also something to think about. The area where we worked in Belgium was heavily loaded with salt and metals, but basically that's the top layer. So it is not one single technology. You have to integrate all of it together.

GT: China and Belgium have been cooperating in science and technology for almost 40 years and China has pledged to further open its market. How do you see the future of the cooperation?

Fransaer: I think the future will be very good. We see that there is a good relationship between the top leaders of the two countries. And the legal framework also allows good cooperation. I think both factors will contribute to enhancing the cooperation between Belgium and China. As China opens up its market even wider, there will be more opportunities for Belgian companies.

GT: This year marks the 40th anniversary of China's reform and opening-up. VITO has been cooperating with China since 2004 and you have come to China over 40 times since the 1990s. How do you think the reform and opening-up has influenced China and the world?

Fransaer: Enormously. The first time I came to China was in 1994. At that time, there was already a lot of economic activity in China, but the country was not yet a world player. But now it is the second-largest economy in the world. So the Chinese economy is influencing the entire world right now. In the last 40 years, the impact China has had on the world has been enormous and the impact of the decision to open up has changed China tremendously in all aspects of life.

In the 1990s, when I was first invited to visit Dongying, a city in East China's Shandong Province, it took me about nine hours to get there from Beijing by car. Nowadays, it takes less than half that by high-speed railway.

Back then getting a contract was not enough - you also needed to have a license. And if you didn't get the license, by the end of the year you had to reapply for everything. Some of the procedures can still be speeded up.

China can also open up more to allow further investment. But if you compare it with before, there has been a very large improvement.

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