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Geothermal heat: energy from the deep

Geothermal heat is efficient, affordable and available year-round. No wonder this energy source is being used by more and more private individuals and companies. But what are the risks involved in drilling, and how can you insure the investment?

15 August 2017, author: Andrea Steinmann, photo: iStock

An excavator drills a hole into the earth.
The earth offers energy regardless of season or weather. Geothermal energy is consistently gaining in popularity in Switzerland.

Heating with geothermal energy is efficient, affordable and eco-friendly. Although the initial investment is somewhat higher than for oil and gas heating systems, the ecological investment is well worth it – especially since geothermal heat is available regardless of season, climate, wind or weather. More and more private individuals and companies in Switzerland now rely on geothermal heat as their source of energy.

Endless energy from the earth

There are several ways to extract geothermal energy from the earth. The most commonly used method is "vertical indirect heat exchange using duplex downhole heat exchangers". This system has a minimal surface footprint and requires shorter pipes than horizontal systems due to the constant ground temperature. Vertical holes must be drilled into the ground so that downhole heat exchangers can be lowered into it. This process can only be done with special drills. Once the heat exchangers are lowered into the ground, they are filled with an anti-freezing agent that circulates in the heat exchanger tubes as it absorbs and discharges heat.

Not entirely free of risk

The drilling harbours risks as the composition of the earth structure is still not entirely known. Gas emissions and artesian wells are the main risks encountered during the drilling process. An artesian well is formed whenever you drill into a layer of water-bearing rock with confined groundwater. This groundwater may be under so much pressure that it automatically rises to the earth's surface or higher.

But the risks don't end even if the drilling was successful and the downhole heat exchanger has been put into operation. Earthquakes, underground shifts, geological changes and landslides can all damage or destroy a downhole heat exchanger. If this happens, the downhole heat exchanger is usually a total loss because it has to be decommissioned and a new hole has to be drilled.

If the terrain is difficult to access, the multi-tonne drilling equipment must be transported to the drilling site in parts, using cranes or even helicopters. Then there are the costs for setting up the construction site and for repairing the environmental damage caused by the heavy drill and its operation.

Costly damage

Claims for downhole heat exchangers can easily run into several thousand Swiss francs. This damage is not usually covered by cantonal buildings insurance or the water damage clause of private buildings insurance. That means that owners of this type of equipment may be in for a rude and costly awakening in case of a claim.

Coordinated insurance coverage

Helvetia offers a way to protect your investment in sustainable energy generation from sudden and unforeseeable damages through comprehensive downhole heat exchanger insurance. The cover is like a comprehensive insurance policy for the downhole heat exchanger. By the way, Helvetia will also cover the cost of a replacement heater so that your home stays cosy and warm while your system is being repaired.

Helvetia offers artesian well, drilling interruption and other innovative insurance solutions to protect you while construction is ongoing. You can now get this cover through selected partner drilling companies.

Andrea Steinmann

Andrea Steinmann

Andrea Steinmann is a Manager specialty products/ innovation Group Solutions department of Helvetia. In addition to downhole heat exchanger and artesian well insurance, Helvetia has offered photovoltaics insurance as a niche product since 2007.

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