Go Green – Make Money

Affordable, luxurious and eco-friendly are three adjectives rarely used together at the same time. Yet all three apply to a remarkable water park in Slovakia. Geraldine Faulkner, the former editor of Sustainable Solutions, reports.

Dear guests, if the waiter does not bring you a receipt, please do not bother yourself with paying.

This surprising and completely true statement appears on the restaurant menu of the huge indoor spa resort, AquaCity in Poprad, eastern Slovakia, which claims it is the only water park in the world to use geothermal energy as its primary energy source, produces almost zero emissions and which plans to be 99% energy self-sufficient by the end of 2008.

Set in the foothills of the High Tatras, which at 8,000 ft are the tallest peaks of the Carpathian Mountains (the highest mountain range in middle Europe), AquaCity sits above a vast underground lake of hot mineral water 1,200m below the surface that is naturally heated to a temperature of 49ºC and which is believed to measure some 70km by 30km and is up to 500m deep in parts.

Poprad

Poprad

Thanks to this massive natural resource, the spa can rely on an inexhaustible supply of natural heat to provide all the water, heating and electricity that it needs for decades to come.

Surprisingly, the potential of the huge underground geo-thermal lake was only realised in 2002 when millionaire property developer and entrepreneur, Czech-born Jan Telenský was taking his baby son for a walk in Poprad (his wife‘s home town). While pushing his son’s pram along some waste ground, he came across a large rusty pipe pouring out hot water.

“What’s this?“ he asked and was told that it was hot water from the earth that the town council saw no use for (in the early 1990s it had been drilling hopefully in search of natural gas) and consequently the naturally heated water (emerging out of the ground at 50ºC) was seen as useless and was being pumped into Poprad’s sewers.

Mr Telenský says he stumbled across two of the most precious resources; energy and water. And for free.

high-tatras

Further investigation of the site, which used to house a municipal swimming pool and tennis courts (heated ironically by fossil fuels), gave Mr Telenský the idea to build an affordable luxury and sustainable spa resort/hotel/conference centre that would use hot water from the underground lake beneath it to supply it with all the heat and energy it needs as well as bring economic prosperity to Poprad; a rundown industrial former communist town.

With this in mind, he negotiated a deal with a private investor and the city of Poprad where he would own 85% of the resort and the city council owns the remaining 15% before investing some £50 million into the construction of AquaCity.

“His vision was to produce affordable green luxuries and plough the benefits back into the local community,” says Jan Profant, AquaCity’s marketing manager. “If he had to pay for coal and gas to heat and power the resort, the cost would be three times higher.”

Today, the thermal water resort with its utilitarian design and high glass walls boasts two hotels, a 300-delegate conference centre, 9 swimming pools, including an Olympic sized 50m long pool; 15 saunas, steam rooms, hot tubs, whirlpools, a snow room (where it snows all year round) and, la pièce de resistance, a cryochamber (see fact file).

So how is this vast array of facilities fed?

A system of heat exchangers harnesses the raw power produced by the mineral rich hot spa water that bubbles up from the earth under its own steam.

Surprisingly, the water containing minerals rich in calcium, magnesium, sulphur and other minerals flows without the need of man-made pumps at the rate of nearly 218, 212 litres per hour.

high-tatras-2

The original bore hole discovered by Mr Telenský some five years ago, sits today in splendid isolation in an incongruous shed 300m away from the water park surrounded by a high wire fence and security cameras.

At the top of the bore hole is a valve that enables the maintenance team to control the flow; either manually via a giant wheel or remotely by computer from AquaCity.

According to the resort’s maintenance manager, Antonin Hiuska, the flow is reduced in the summer and, obviously, increased in the winter.

What process is used to filter the water?

“The water is disinfected via an ultraviolet system,” explains Mr Hiuska. “The UV filters kill the live bacteria and the stainless steel lining in some of the pools help prevent corrosion.”

Due to the mineral-rich water, corrosion is an on-going challenge to the maintenance team.

As well as keeping an eye on the corrosive property of the mineral rich hot water, cleanliness is high on the agenda.

Currently, all the water in the pools is cleaned once a day and twice a year the pools are completely emptied for a thorough going over.

“All the water in the pools is returned to the nearby river where it goes back to the underground lake at a considerably lower temperature than when it first emerged from the bore hold,” adds Mr Profant.

A second bore hole is being drilled 2,500m below the High Tatras Mountains. This is particularly significant since plans are well underway to expand AquaCity.

The intention is to double the sauna centre, create an indoor tropical beach under biomes (similar to those used on the Eden Project), offer under-cover activities such as water skiing as well as increase the number of pools to 38 and supply part of Poprad’s homes with hot water and heat.

At the end of 2008, it is planned that three giant solar panels, each the size of a tennis court, will be sited on the roof of the complex and three wind turbines less than a mile away.

All in all, this is intended to ensure that AquaCity will eventually use no outside energy whatsoever.

What would be the scenario if the water park was not being fed its water, heat and power from the underground lake?

Jan Telenský reckons that if the water park had used fossil fuels as its energy source, it would have generated around 50,000 tonnes of C02 each year.

So does the Czech-born millionaire believe it’s all about ethics?

“I use environmental technology because it gives me a business edge and because I think the environment is important. I believe that every businessman’s motto should be: ‘Go green – make money’,” he says emphatically.

Fact file: The cryochamber

The cryochamber is a chamber, the size of a sauna, in which cryotherapy is practised.

Please note: this is not the same as cryonics, the process of preserving bodies at very low temperatures in the hope that one day they can be resuscitated. Cryotherapy is where people are exposed to temperatures as low as minus 120ºC.

That’s right; minus 120ºC.

With its roots going back to Egyptian times, cryotherapy is believed to bring relief to ailments such as rheumatoid joint problems, sclerosis, back pain, osteoporosis and fybrositis. The theory is that by subjecting the body to extreme low temperatures, its response is to release endorphins and hormones to eliminate the stress and protect itself from damage. Cryotherapy is also said to be good for reducing cellulite, improving skin conditions and helping sufferers of depression.

The treatment involves putting on a t-shirt, shorts, knee-high socks, gloves, hair band, clogs and a paper face mask (to protect bronchial tubes and lungs from the cold dry air), having a preliminary health check with the resort doctor (who asks a few questions and checks your blood pressure) before entering an ante-chamber where liquid oxygen sends the temperature plummeting to minus 60ºC.

Participants are told to stamp/shuffle around in a tight circle for a minute before going into the cryochamber proper (the coldest place to be found on earth; the record low surface temperature in the Antarctic is only -89ºC) where they stamp/shuffle around for a further two minute session.

The entire procedure is closely supervised by the resort doctor and an assistant. Via a microphone, they let people know when the first minute is up and it is time to go through the connecting door to the cryochamber.

“You come out with a euphoric feeling that you are glad to be alive,” said one gasping participant emerging with frost on her socks.

Phase two of the treatment is a 20-minute work-out in a small gym whose aim is to kick-start the body up again with a burst of energy.

Cryotherapy is also used to help rehabilitation following an injury (they are said to undergo three minutes rather than the customary two) and consequently is popular with athletes such as footballers and rugby players; a sector that AquaCity is understandably keen to encourage.

From rags to riches

Born in Prague in 1948, Jan Telenský fled Czechoslavakia at the age of 21 after the 1968 Soviet invasion and didn’t return to the country until after the fall of communism in 1989. He arrived in the UK with barely a penny to his name and slept rough on a bench for two weeks before getting a job as an assembly line worker with Vauxhall before going on to work as a security guard, a deli owner, a commercial trainer and a property developer. By 1978, a decade after arriving in the UK as a penniless exile, Mr Telenský was a millionaire and now owns 15 companies worldwide producing a combined turnover of £70 million worldwide.

www.aquacityresort.com


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About Geraldine Faulkener