Geothermal energy is a renewable energy source that is used in around 20 countries, with a total capacity of over 13GW installed worldwide by the end of 2018.
Simply put, geothermal energy is the heat that comes from the sub-surface of the earth. It is found within the rocks and fluid from beneath the earth’s crust.
It is produced by digging wells into underground reservoirs to access the steam and hot water to drive turbines connected to generators.
Like all forms of energy production, work had to start somewhere. What and where is the first geothermal power plant in the world?
To find the first geothermal power plant in the world you have to go to Tuscany, Italy in the early twentieth century.
The creation of the first geothermal power plant was thanks to Prince Piero Ginori Conti of Trevignano. Conti initially worked for his father in law Florestano de Larderel in the processing of boric acid.
It was through this work that Conti eventually found his way into geothermal energy with the creation of the first geothermal energy generator in 1904. Based at the Lardorello dry stream field, Conti’s generator was able to produce 10 kW of energy and power five light bulbs.
From these humble beginnings, the geothermal potential of Lardorello was expanded in 1911. In an area known as the Devil’s Valley the world’s first geothermal power plant was completed in 1913.
Larderello 1 had a capacity of 250 kW and was able to produce 2750 kW of electricity, which was used to power the Italian railway system and the nearby villages of Larderello and Volterra.
The plant was gradually added to throughout the years and now Larderello is now formed of 34 plants operated by Italian company Enel Green Power (EGP). The capacity of the site is now 800MW, and has helped Italy become the sixth-largest producer of geothermal energy in the world, as it forms nearly 2% of Italy’s energy mix.
Geothermal power was born, but the world would wait until 1958 for the second geothermal plant in Wairakei, New Zealand.
Prince Conti’s legacy
Thanks to the success of the plant and following the death of his father-in-law, Conti was able to assume control of the businesses and merge them into the Società Boracifera di Larderello, which flourished thanks to his support of Benito Mussolini.
When Conti died on 9 December 1939 the journal Nature wrote that: “Italy [has] lost one of her most energetic industrial personalities and international science a devoted supporter. His name will always be associated with the industrial utilisation of the volcanic springs in the Lardarello district of Tuscany.
“Thanks to his ‘drive’ and business acumen, these waters were made to generate electric current for transmission to Florence and Pisa, and to yield boric acid, carbon dioxide for industrial use.”
Despite Prince Conti’s questionable political legacy, Larderello has produced energy for over a century and has now become a tourist attraction, with Tuscany’s geothermal areas receiving 120,000 visitors in 2017 alone.