TNO studies on geothermal energy potential find their way to art gallery in Turin

Geo-energy research
21 September 2023

You’re working at TNO on long-term scenarios for the energy system to meet global climate targets by 2050 and suddenly you receive an email from a famous Italian photographer. They are keen to use data from some scientific articles for a six-month exhibition on circular economy and renewable energy in Turin. ‘‘Can our visual designer turn this into something beautiful?’’

Three-dimensional images

It’s the most curious request Francesco Dalla Longa, senior researcher in energy systems analysis at TNO, has received in his long career. His fellow scientist, TNO principal scientist and part-time professor, Bob van der Zwaan, was no less surprised.

‘‘Apparently, they did a literature search and came across two studies of ours from 2019 and 2020 on the potential for geothermal energy in the coming decades in Europe and around the globe. Interesting results, but dry reading for non-scientists.’’

Bob van der Zwaan (1)

‘‘It's extraordinary that data from our scientifically designed graphs have now been artfully incorporated into three-dimensional images that can be admired in Turin from 21 September.’’

Bob van der Zwaan

TNO principal scientist and part-time professor

Unique studies geothermal energy

Today, these scientific publications written at TNO are consulted and quoted by energy experts worldwide, but that the art world is doing something with them is quite unusual.

‘‘The studies are unique in that we are using our global energy system model TIAM-ECN, in which we’ve incorporated high-resolution data on geothermal energy. This allows us to bridge the gap between our field of future energy-climate scenarios and that of our geoscience colleagues. This is the first time that this happened and apparently it hasn't gone unnoticed,’’ Bob says.

New insights

The synergy between the two research areas took shape when then Petten-based knowledge institute ECN merged with TNO. There was already a lot of mutual collaboration, but from 2018 on it became much more intense as it became one organisation. And initiatives arose that otherwise wouldn’t have got off the ground.

Francesco: ‘That’s also something that is special about TNO. We saw mutual opportunities to do very new things with new colleagues. At ECN, we had experts on solar, wind, biomass, and CO2 capture, but geothermal energy was TNO's expertise par excellence.

Francesco Dalla Longa

‘‘Joining forces allowed us to enrich our TIAM-ECN model with detailed subsurface knowledge and data. This allowed us to offer new insights to the world.’’

Francesco Dalla Longa

senior researcher in energy systems analysis at TNO

Renewable and low-carbon resource

The 2019 study quantifies the potential role of geothermal energy and its growth globally up to 2050. There are many places where geothermal energy can be produced, and, because it is a renewable and low-carbon source, it’s an interesting option for contributing to meeting climate targets. The main applications are heat production and electricity generation.

The report calculates the quantities of both applications that can be produced with geothermal heat by 2050. By then, geothermal power plants could in several cases compete with renewables such as solar and wind power and contribute at least a few percent to global energy supply. The market share of geothermal energy could reach an estimated 500 billion dollar by 2050.

Potential in Europe

The 2020 article zooms in on the situation in Europe, using an even further refined TIAM-ECN model to show the extent to which geothermal energy could grow here up to 2050. For various sectors such as industry, agriculture, and the built environment, the potential has been calculated at varying geological depths for the whole of Europe. By 2050, geothermal energy is expected to be able to account for close to five per cent of European electricity production. The European market could be worth around 200 billion US dollar.

Clean energy source

‘‘These are studies that help raise awareness that geothermal energy and the subsurface in general play an important role in the energy transition. When thinking of the subsurface, most people think of fossil fuels that can be extracted or the storage of gases including carbon dioxide and hydrogen, but there is also a relatively clean energy source like geothermal heat available. We have to use everything we can to meet climate targets,’’ Bob says.

The convergence of art and science in this case reminds him of the 'arts & sciences' phenomenon that is a household word in Anglo-Saxon countries.

‘‘Scientists and artists have in common that they’re free thinkers, develop new ideas, and don’t necessarily know the outcome of their work in advance. It's nice that our Italian friends appreciate this combination.’’

Jan Diederik van Wees, Principal Scientist at TNO and Professor on Geothermal Exploration: ‘Thanks to the collaboration between earth scientists and energy experts within TNO, we were able to effectively translate our European subsurface modelling of geothermal resources with the TIAM-ECN model into a future potential, incorporating alternative renewable energy sources. The results contributed to the recognition of geothermal's significant geothermal potential for the EU, and the prioritisation of further development.’

Art: Projections for geothermal heat production in Europe. Image: Frederica Fragapane

“Working on the TIAM-ECN geothermal energy data and their dissemination was an incredibly interesting process. It reinforced my belief in the significance of ongoing collaborations between scientists, designers, and artists to communicate such important topics to a broad audience.”

Federica Fragapane

information designer

Want to admire it live?

'The circle' by Luca Locatelli is on display from 21 September 2023 to 18 February 2024 at Gallerie d'Italia, Turin.

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