Geothermal power Munich's Warm Glow

A leafy suburb in Munich is leading the way in exploiting the city's rich geothermal energy sources after building its own community power station.
Always in hot water: the geothermal rig in Grünwald.

The Munich suburb of Grünwald has a high profile in Germany. Many episodes of the popular TV detective series “Derrick” are filmed among the area's ritzy residences. And many VIPs live there.

The former head of engineering giant Siemens, Klaus Kleinfeld, once sold his home to soccer legend Jürgen Klinsmann, and many a Bayern Munich soccer star has lived in the exclusive community.

But more important to Jan Neusiedl, Grünwald’s mayor, is that the leafy suburb is at the forefront of Germany's much-vaunted transition to renewable energy sources, which should see it produce 60 percent of its power from green sources by 2050.

Early on in the process, the municipality sought to secure its own power, and in 2008, it asserted its right to a source of geothermal energy beneath its houses, roads and manicured gardens.

Tapping geothermal energy involves drilling down into hot rocks and using them to warm water for central heating systems. More advanced systems can be used to generate steam to drive turbines and produce electricty.

Today, Grünwald has a long-distance heating network with a total length of 40 kilometers, or 25 miles. It provides heat to more than 1,000 households.

“Practically every new building is hooked up,” Mr. Neusiedl said. Grünwald's own geothermal power plant also recently started operating. It cost about €180 million, or $204 million, and was partly paid for by the high tax revenues in the wealthy, 11,000-resident community.

The German energy industry’s dominant issue is the diversification of power sources, necessary to achieve its hoped for green targets. For example, Munich’s public utility company is participating in the construction of an offshore wind-power park, despite it being hundreds of miles from the site.

Security and sustainability have become very important for citizens with regard to energy. Jan Neusiedl, Mayor of Grünwald, Munich

And in Rosenheim, another city in southern Germany, the local energy provider has purchased a large gas turbine and likewise has plans for geothermal energy.

At the same time, manufacturers such as Siemens are finding themselves lumbered with huge unsold gas turbines made for large power plants. “Security and sustainability have become very important for citizens with regard to energy,” Mr. Neusiedl said.

Geothermal energy is an exotic but attractive source — especially in the area around Munich, which is rich in geothermal sources at relatively accessable depths of about 4,000 meters. The only other place in Europe where so many projects exist in such a small area is Iceland.

There are currently 32 projects in Munich, and half are in public hands.

“Over the long term, geothermal energy has great potential,” the Bavaria's energy minister, Ilse Aigner, told Handelsblatt. “For example, we could heat all of Munich with long-distance geothermal energy.”

Germany, which has about 4.2 gigawatts of geothermal power, ranks fifth globally in installed capacity for heat generation, according to the Federal Geothermal Association. The share of geothermal energy used to produce electricity is low but is scheduled to increase in accordance with German government plans.

The investments are not risk-free. For one thing, public fears must be addressed. In Staufen im Breisgau in southwest Germany , geothermal drilling caused cracks in houses in 2008.

And not every drilling operation is successful. “That could cause trouble politically someday,” Mr. Neusiedl said.

An expensive drilling operation is necessary to determine whether a particular source can provide abundant heat. Grünwald covered the risks of its test with an insurance policy, but even with that protection, expensive preliminary work would have been for nothing.

In many communities, the lust for geothermal energy received a cold shower after a drilling operation in Gelting in northern Germany produced disappointing results about two years ago. Since then, it has become more difficult to find insurance coverage for such projects.

In Grünwald, however, residents are pleased the town’s project was successfully completed. “We weren't the pioneers, but we were involved early,” Mr. Neusiedl said.

The start-up costs were immense, but one great advantage for Grünwald was that it had a major customer right from the beginning: Bavaria Film Studios.

Ultimately, the project should pay off for all participants over the long haul. “The people of Grünwald can do their math,” Mr. Neusiedl said.

Apparently so. Another 24 kilometers of pipelines are set to be added by the end of 2017.


The author is Handelsblatt's bureau chief in Munich. To contact the author: [email protected]