Until the launch of a large-scale geothermal project intended to heat thousands of apartments, an energy conversion which is intended to be an example in a European Union in search of emancipation from Moscow.

“Since the 1980s, we have burned millions of cubic meters of imported Russian gas” to supply housing and “we have emitted tons of carbon”, explains geologist Tamas Medgyes, who is taking part in the operation.

Yet the solution was “under our feet”.

Well before the war in Ukraine, the municipality of this city of 160,000 inhabitants, located two hours by road from Budapest, decided to set up the largest geothermal heating system in Europe outside of Iceland.

At the end of the works in 2023, Szeged will have on its soil 27 pumps, 16 power stations and 250 km of pipes which will supply electricity to 27,000 apartments and 400 non-residential customers.

Objective: to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 60%.

“Geothermal energy is local, accessible and renewable, so why not use it?” says Mr. Medgyes.

– Vast potential –

In this landlocked country, poor in natural resources, the potential is immense.

Hungary, surrounded by the last foothills of the Alps and the Carpathian range, draws 80 to 90 million cubic meters of thermal water each year at temperatures that can rise to more than 90 degrees, according to the sector association MTT ( Magyar Termalenergia Tarsasa).

A thermal paradise with 260 stations, it still uses this resource for energy purposes very little.

Currently, only 1.5% of heating needs are provided by geothermal energy, a figure that could rise to 25% according to the MTT.

Since 2010, the government of Viktor Orban has favored the use of Russian hydrocarbons: Hungary thus imports 65% of its oil from Russia, and 80% of its gas.

It also has a nuclear power plant located in Paks, near Budapest, whose expansion project was awarded to the nuclear giant Rosatom in 2014.

– “Show the way”-

But the conflict has highlighted the country’s vulnerability, between soaring energy prices, European oil embargo and risks of interruption of gas deliveries.

“In Szeged, 100% of the heating supply previously depended on Russian gas”, underlines Balazs Kobor, director of the municipal heating company Szetav in charge of the project.

“It’s a hot topic now,” says the manager, who didn’t wait for the conflict to take an interest in geothermal energy.

He began to “knock on the doors of decision-makers” several years ago, before being invested by the city in 2015 with the mission of developing renewables.

“We can show the way,” says his colleague Tamas Medgyes, drawing on his long experience.

– “Future generations” –

As in Szeged, many Hungarian municipalities have district heating networks dating from the communist era, which could switch from gas to geothermal energy.

“Twelve municipalities are currently using it and others will no doubt follow given the surge in gas prices,” adds Mr. Medgyes. He even sees further, evoking “certain cities in France, Germany, Italy or Slovakia rich in geothermal deposits”.

Lagging behind in this area, the EU could do much better: “More than a quarter of its population lives in areas adapted” to such systems, specifies Lajos Kerekes, expert of the Regional Center for Research on Energy Policy based in Budapest.

The project, partially financed by European funds, is certainly expensive – more than 50 million euros – but “the combustion of fossils has a cost for future generations and the environment”, defends Mr. Medgyes, on one of the building sites.

In the dust and noise, workers are busy digging ever deeper.

The first customers are satisfied with the change, imperceptible on a daily basis. “The radiators and the tap water are as hot as before, I don’t feel any difference,” says Gabriella Maar Pallo, a 50-year-old employee.