YEREVAN // Armenia has hitched its energy future to nuclear power, but some of that may come from the Earth's core instead of man-made atomic reactors. Last year, the landlocked Eurasian state, which produces no oil or gas, won a US$1.5 million (Dh5.5m) grant from the World Bank for technical assistance with geothermal energy development. It was the second grant Armenia had received under a the bank's $25m, eight-year GeoFund programme to promote geothermal power in eastern Europe and Central Asia.
"We have a study for geothermal energy," Armen Movsisyan, the Armenian energy minister, said last week. "We have the potential and we can utilise it. We have put together a business plan." Geothermal power projects tap the underground heat generated by natural nuclear fission as the Earth's stores of the radioactive metals uranium and thorium decay. This is most accessible at geological "hot spots" where the Earth's crust is stretched thin or under stress. Volcanoes, earthquake activity and natural hot springs are all indicative of hot spots, and Armenia has all of them.
"Armenia is situated in a vast area of intense young volcanism," notes an EU web portal on the country's renewable energy. "This may signify availability of a considerable resource of underground heat." The European Commission funds the renewableenergyarmenia.am website under a project aimed at supporting Armenian government policies that promote renewable energy development in a country that has pledged to decommission the ageing atomic plant that supplies 40 per cent of its electricity.
In 2001, Yerevan ordered the purchase by local utilities of all electricity generated from renewable sources in Armenia for the following 15 years. The programme was designed to stimulate renewable power development ahead of the scheduled 2016 closure of the nuclear plant. Two years later, the government ordered extensive field investigations at Jermaghbyur, a possible geothermal project site. Geophysicists and seismic engineers from the Armenian National Academy of Science collaborated with Russian experts to drill an exploratory well seeking underground hot-water reservoirs, which they found. They also conducted other tests, such as analysing local water sources for radioactive isotopes.
With the help of a survey of the 19 mining companies operating in the region, the researchers in 2005 estimated the cost of installing 25 megawatts of geothermal electrical capacity on the Jermaghbyur plateau at $39.1m. While Armenia cannot do without a nuclear plant and plans to install a new one by 2017, it is also committed to broadening its energy mix with more renewables. That is partly to preserve its environment, which is attracting increasing numbers of tourists, and partly to circumvent problems caused by unreliable gas supplies from Russia through Georgia.
Small hydroelectricity projects on fast-flowing rivers already provide about 30 per cent of Armenia's installed power capacity but that resource is almost fully exploited. tcarlisle@the national.ae