Geothermal Power

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Charlie Brewer Fall 2008


There is no one solution to global warming. Considering no one miracle technology exists that can single handedly control climate change, cutting carbon emissions change will take efforts on many fronts. Fortunately, the collective utilization of current technologies can lead to a solution. Geothermal power can and must play a large part in controlling climate change, as it is a technologically sound and economical natural resource.


Geothermal power utilizes the earth’s natural heat. The heat increases with depth, approximately three degrees Celsius per 100 meters,[1] and is primarily generated by the decay of radioactive isotopes in rocks.[2] If all of the heat that escapes into the atmosphere could be captured, it would be sufficient to provide electricity for the entire world.[3] There is no technology to capture all of this heat energy, but systems have been created that harness some of it. The majority of these systems are located where two of the earth’s six plates meet, which also happens to be volcanic regions marked by comparatively shallow heat sources.[4] This particularly strong geothermal area is known as the “Ring of Fire” and runs along the Pacific coast of North and South America as well as along much of the Pacific coast of Asia.[5]


Geothermal energy is a particularly clean alternative energy source that provides energy efficiently and economically. It releases only thirteen percent of the carbon dioxide per unit electricity that coal does, fifteen percent of the carbon dioxide that oil does, and just fifty percent of the carbon dioxide that natural gas omits.[6] Out of other renewable energy sources, Glitnir Bank has calculated that it is by far the cheapest energy source[7] and some estimate it as being close to 30% more profitable than other clean energy sources.[8] Building geothermal plants, which normally takes between three and five years, is remarkably quicker than building a nuclear power plant, but is, however, more drawn out than the six or so months required to build a wind energy field.[9] Geothermal energy has the absolute advantage for electricity per unit of land of renewable energy sources. Additionally, unlike other energy supplies, geothermal power can be found anywhere and at any time since the temperature inside the earth’s crust hardly varies. Energy can be produced at night, unlike solar power, and on completely windless days, unlike wind power. It is also a flexible energy in the sense that it can be used on a large scale or a small scale; it can provide energy for a single household or for an entire city. This is a strong distinction from nuclear energy for example, as nobody would own his or her own personal nuclear power plant.


On the most fundamental level, understanding the conversion of geothermal heat to energy is relatively straightforward. This process requires a heat source, a reservoir and a fluid.[10] A heat source can be anywhere inside the earth’s crust, a reservoir entails the needs for the rocks to be permeable and the fluid - water - acts as the carrier of energy. After drilling into a zone fulfilling all of these requirements, steam rises up through a pipe to the surface of earth, where it passes through a generator and is then normally returned through a separate pipe to the heat source.[11] Traditionally, the assumption was that a heat source would have to be at least 200 degrees Celsius to be economical, but a new technology in Alaska has been able to economically generate electricity at only 160 degrees Celsius.[12] This type of generation is primarily used for large-scale production; an individual would be unlikely to have such an apparatus in their backyard.


Individuals can play a role in switching to geothermal energy. Direct use applications offer the opportunity to take advantage of the earth's heat on a much smaller scale. The primary use of direct use applications is in heat pumps.[13] These have a higher initial cost than fossil fuel heaters, but operating expenses are remarkably lower.[14] The Delta-Montrose Electric Association calculates that about one million ground based heat pumps are currently in use, and save more than 21.2 million barrels of crude oil per year. The effort can be seen around the entire globe too. More than 200,000 apartments in Paris are heated by geothermal systems.[15] Consumers are choosing geothermal systems because they recognize the money that can be saved by these products. While they represent a large startup cost, people are recognizing that they can save money with geothermal, self-fueling systems and are helping to cut oil consumption. These smaller individual decisions add up to help reduce global warming.


Industries are also starting to recognize the promise of large geothermal plants. In August of 2008 $28.1 million were raised at a Nevada state auction that sold the rights to build geothermal plants on state land.[16] The fact that there was an auction demonstrates that there is more demand for property to build plants on than there is a supply of such land. Industries are anxious to have a piece of geothermal power, as is evidenced by the large bids. The increased industrial interest can also be seen in the fact that geothermal projects have increased by 28% since January.[17] Industries are accepting the large start up costs of geothermal plants because they believe that in the long run profits can be made from the earth’s heat. This acceleration can partly be accounted for by high oil prices and the resulting universal switch to alternate fuel sources, but a large part of it can be attributed to the particularly strong future of geothermal energy.


Geothermal systems have an even more promising outlook. A technology known as enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) is on the brink of becoming a practical system.[18] This system is an extremely promising advancement in geothermal technology that generates power from hard dry rock. To do this, water is injected into such a rock with enough force to shatter it, leaving the rock permeable.[19] Wastewater from nearby towns is then run into the hot rock, creating steam to power a generator at the surface.[20] The advantage of EGS is that it can generate power just about anywhere; it does not need to be drilled into scarce permeable wet rock.[21]


EGS can make geothermal energy a significant source of geothermal energy. Currently, geothermal energy supplies around 1% of the United State's energy, but EGS has the potential to drastically increase geothermal production. A report from MIT states, “If EGS can be proved economical on a commercial scale, its development potential will be limitless in many countries.”[22] The MIT report goes on to estimate that a $386 million investment over eight years in EGS would result in 100 GW (giggawatts) of economical electricity by 2050.[23] Combined with current geothermal generation, this would amount to around 20% of the nations energy generation.[24] EGS is not a highly theoretical resource, as the MIT report maintains that a relatively modest investment by the government would lead to the finalization of EGS. In fact, plants have already been produced in France and Germany.[25] Investors have begun to poor resources towards the development of EGS as they recognize its potential to become a large and very profitable industry.[26] Still some are uncomfortable increasing government spending, especially given the current financial crisis. In reality this spending pales in comparison to the cost of items such as the defense budget and the $700 billion stimulus package, both of which could both alleviated by geothermal energy.


Having a reliable energy source in the United States would enhance national security. The country would no longer be vulnerable to oil exporting countries exploitation and would not have to worry about being cut off from oil if a controversial policy was passed. Geothermal power plants also enhance national security more than other energy sources because of the quantity of plants; terrorists could not attack one plant and have it devastate the entire country. This implies that defense spending could be lowered due to the increased security that geothermal energy would create, which could help subsidize its' $368 million investment.


Geothermal energy could also help to address the current financial crisis in two ways. First, it would cut costs, as countries would not have to import all of their energy, but would rather have a reliable and relatively cheep national energy source. Second, if EGS can be perfected in the United States, than it will a new profitable industry to help refuel the economy and generate jobs.[27] This technology could play a part in an economic recovery as it would both cut spending and increase salaries and the necessary $368 million investment is substantially smaller than the $700 billion bailout.


As geothermal energy continues to become more prevalent, positive cultural changes can also be expected. To understand the relationship between the two, one must examine the utilization of geothermal energy in Iceland. In the lifetime of a single generation, Iceland was able to change from one of Europe’s poorest countries to one of the world’s wealthiest, largely due to the development of geothermal energy.[28] Currently geothermal energy produces 54% of the country’s electricity.[29] In terms of cultural significance, President Grimsson of Iceland writes, “the development of geothermal resources has had a desirable impact on social life in Iceland,” and goes on to describe the development of prominent cities around strong geothermal systems in once rural areas or his country.[30] People in Iceland want to live around the resources both for the cheap energy, but also to live in a city with outdoor hot swimming pools filled with geothermal water, sports facilities and happy people.[31] This example highlights geothermal plant's ability not to repulse locals, but instead to have the opposite impact. Geothermal plants are truly clean and not intimidating, like nuclear plants, and they rearrange cultures around exploitable geothermal systems. While Iceland may be an extreme case, the potential for economic growth is possible for more developed nations too. People will be drawn to cheap energy and even desolate areas in Oregon or New Mexico could develop prominent towns with geothermal plants. This same cultural evolution can be seen in whole countries, like Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador, the Phillipines and Indonesia, where geothermal plants are being installed to eliminate dependence on oil. [32] The cultures of these developing countries have the potential to change and excel just like Iceland’s did.


Any nation can join Iceland in leading a change to geothermal energy. Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico stated in September of 2007, “The United States can also be a world leader in developing a clean, renewable geothermal resource base.”[33] Geothermal energy has been ignored for too long. Senator Jon Lester of Montana said at the same time “I’m a little bit embarrassed by the fact that … we’ve got tremendous resources in this country and literally, nothing has been done.”[34] Even though oil prices may be falling, geothermal energy cannot be ignored any longer. It is “embarrassing” that world powers were ignorant of the vast energy resources beneath their very feet, and action must be taken to include geothermal energy into a significant supplier of global energy. Whether the goal of 20% of energy from geothermal plants can be met in the next fifty years or not, geothermal power has the capability to play a significant part in the solution of global warming and must be included in the effort to control carbon emissions.

Notes

  1. Dickson , Mary H., and Mario Fenelli. Geothermal Energy. Paris: UNESCO, 2003.
  2. Duffield, Wendell A., and J. H. Sass. Geothermal Energy: Clean Power from the Earth's Heat. Menlo Park, Calif: U.S. Geological Survey, 2003.
  3. Duffield, Wendell A., and J. H. Sass. Geothermal Energy: Clean Power from the Earth's Heat. Menlo Park, Calif: U.S. Geological Survey, 2003.
  4. Dickson , Mary H., and Mario Fenelli. Geothermal Energy. Paris: UNESCO, 2003.
  5. Nowak, Rachel. "Who needs coal when you can have deep heat: just by mining heat from subterranean rock we could supply the world with affordable green power.(Technology)." New Scientist 199.2665 (July 19, 2008): 24(2). Academic OneFile. Gale. Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT. 29 Oct. 2008 <http://find.galegroup.com/itx/start.do?prodId=AONE>.
  6. Duffield, Wendell A., and J. H. Sass. Geothermal Energy: Clean Power from the Earth's Heat. Menlo Park, Calif: U.S. Geological Survey, 2003.
  7. Duffield, Wendell A., and J. H. Sass. Geothermal Energy: Clean Power from the Earth's Heat. Menlo Park, Calif: U.S. Geological Survey, 2003.
  8. United States. Geothermal Energy Initiative: Hearing Before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, United States Senate, One Hundred Tenth Congress, First Session, to Receive Testimony on S. 1543, a Bill to Establish a National Geothermal Initiative to Encourage Increased Production of Energy from Geothermal Resources by Creating a Program of Geothermal Research, Development, Demonstration and Commercial Application to Support the Achievement of a National Geothermal Energy Goal, September 26, 2007. Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 2008.
  9. United States. Geothermal Energy Initiative: Hearing Before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, United States Senate, One Hundred Tenth Congress, First Session, to Receive Testimony on S. 1543, a Bill to Establish a National Geothermal Initiative to Encourage Increased Production of Energy from Geothermal Resources by Creating a Program of Geothermal Research, Development, Demonstration and Commercial Application to Support the Achievement of a National Geothermal Energy Goal, September 26, 2007. Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 2008.
  10. Dickson , Mary H., and Mario Fenelli. Geothermal Energy. Paris: UNESCO, 2003.
  11. Duffield, Wendell A., and J. H. Sass. Geothermal Energy: Clean Power from the Earth's Heat. Menlo Park, Calif: U.S. Geological Survey, 2003.
  12. United States. Geothermal Energy Initiative: Hearing Before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, United States Senate, One Hundred Tenth Congress, First Session, to Receive Testimony on S. 1543, a Bill to Establish a National Geothermal Initiative to Encourage Increased Production of Energy from Geothermal Resources by Creating a Program of Geothermal Research, Development, Demonstration and Commercial Application to Support the Achievement of a National Geothermal Energy Goal, September 26, 2007. Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 2008.
  13. Dickson , Mary H., and Mario Fenelli. Geothermal Energy. Paris: UNESCO, 2003.
  14. Dickson , Mary H., and Mario Fenelli. Geothermal Energy. Paris: UNESCO, 2003.
  15. Duffield, Wendell A., and J. H. Sass. Geothermal Energy: Clean Power from the Earth's Heat. Menlo Park, Calif: U.S. Geological Survey, 2003.
  16. Howell, Katie. "Geothermal Energy: Nevada lease sale brings record $28M." E&E News P.M. August 08, 2008 29 Oct 2008 <http://lexis-nexis.com/envuniv/document?_m=3b55c9718988>
  17. Howell, Katie. "Geothermal Energy: Nevada lease sale brings record $28M." E&E News P.M. August 08, 2008 29 Oct 2008 <http://lexis-nexis.com/envuniv/document?_m=3b55c9718988>
  18. Nowak, Rachel. "Who needs coal when you can have deep heat: just by mining heat from subterranean rock we could supply the world with affordable green power.(Technology)." New Scientist 199.2665 (July 19, 2008): 24(2). Academic OneFile. Gale. Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT. 29 Oct. 2008 <http://find.galegroup.com/itx/start.do?prodId=AONE>.
  19. Duffield, Wendell A., and J. H. Sass. Geothermal Energy: Clean Power from the Earth's Heat. Menlo Park, Calif: U.S. Geological Survey, 2003.
  20. Duffield, Wendell A., and J. H. Sass. Geothermal Energy: Clean Power from the Earth's Heat. Menlo Park, Calif: U.S. Geological Survey, 2003.
  21. Nowak, Rachel. "Who needs coal when you can have deep heat: just by mining heat from subterranean rock we could supply the world with affordable green power.(Technology)." New Scientist 199.2665 (July 19, 2008): 24(2). Academic OneFile. Gale. Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT. 29 Oct. 2008 <http://find.galegroup.com/itx/start.do?prodId=AONE>.
  22. Nowak, Rachel. "Who needs coal when you can have deep heat: just by mining heat from subterranean rock we could supply the world with affordable green power.(Technology)." New Scientist 199.2665 (July 19, 2008): 24(2). Academic OneFile. Gale. Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT. 29 Oct. 2008 <http://find.galegroup.com/itx/start.do?prodId=AONE>.
  23. United States. Geothermal Energy Initiative: Hearing Before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, United States Senate, One Hundred Tenth Congress, First Session, to Receive Testimony on S. 1543, a Bill to Establish a National Geothermal Initiative to Encourage Increased Production of Energy from Geothermal Resources by Creating a Program of Geothermal Research, Development, Demonstration and Commercial Application to Support the Achievement of a National Geothermal Energy Goal, September 26, 2007. Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 2008.
  24. United States. Geothermal Energy Initiative: Hearing Before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, United States Senate, One Hundred Tenth Congress, First Session, to Receive Testimony on S. 1543, a Bill to Establish a National Geothermal Initiative to Encourage Increased Production of Energy from Geothermal Resources by Creating a Program of Geothermal Research, Development, Demonstration and Commercial Application to Support the Achievement of a National Geothermal Energy Goal, September 26, 2007. Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 2008.
  25. United States. Geothermal Energy Initiative: Hearing Before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, United States Senate, One Hundred Tenth Congress, First Session, to Receive Testimony on S. 1543, a Bill to Establish a National Geothermal Initiative to Encourage Increased Production of Energy from Geothermal Resources by Creating a Program of Geothermal Research, Development, Demonstration and Commercial Application to Support the Achievement of a National Geothermal Energy Goal, September 26, 2007. Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 2008.
  26. Nowak, Rachel. "Who needs coal when you can have deep heat: just by mining heat from subterranean rock we could supply the world with affordable green power.(Technology)." New Scientist 199.2665 (July 19, 2008): 24(2). Academic OneFile. Gale. Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT. 29 Oct. 2008 <http://find.galegroup.com/itx/start.do?prodId=AONE>.
  27. United States. Geothermal Energy Initiative: Hearing Before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, United States Senate, One Hundred Tenth Congress, First Session, to Receive Testimony on S. 1543, a Bill to Establish a National Geothermal Initiative to Encourage Increased Production of Energy from Geothermal Resources by Creating a Program of Geothermal Research, Development, Demonstration and Commercial Application to Support the Achievement of a National Geothermal Energy Goal, September 26, 2007. Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 2008.
  28. United States. Geothermal Energy Initiative: Hearing Before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, United States Senate, One Hundred Tenth Congress, First Session, to Receive Testimony on S. 1543, a Bill to Establish a National Geothermal Initiative to Encourage Increased Production of Energy from Geothermal Resources by Creating a Program of Geothermal Research, Development, Demonstration and Commercial Application to Support the Achievement of a National Geothermal Energy Goal, September 26, 2007. Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 2008.
  29. United States. Geothermal Energy Initiative: Hearing Before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, United States Senate, One Hundred Tenth Congress, First Session, to Receive Testimony on S. 1543, a Bill to Establish a National Geothermal Initiative to Encourage Increased Production of Energy from Geothermal Resources by Creating a Program of Geothermal Research, Development, Demonstration and Commercial Application to Support the Achievement of a National Geothermal Energy Goal, September 26, 2007. Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 2008.
  30. United States. Geothermal Energy Initiative: Hearing Before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, United States Senate, One Hundred Tenth Congress, First Session, to Receive Testimony on S. 1543, a Bill to Establish a National Geothermal Initiative to Encourage Increased Production of Energy from Geothermal Resources by Creating a Program of Geothermal Research, Development, Demonstration and Commercial Application to Support the Achievement of a National Geothermal Energy Goal, September 26, 2007. Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 2008.
  31. United States. Geothermal Energy Initiative: Hearing Before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, United States Senate, One Hundred Tenth Congress, First Session, to Receive Testimony on S. 1543, a Bill to Establish a National Geothermal Initiative to Encourage Increased Production of Energy from Geothermal Resources by Creating a Program of Geothermal Research, Development, Demonstration and Commercial Application to Support the Achievement of a National Geothermal Energy Goal, September 26, 2007. Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 2008.
  32. Duffield, Wendell A., and J. H. Sass. Geothermal Energy: Clean Power from the Earth's Heat. Menlo Park, Calif: U.S. Geological Survey, 2003.
  33. United States. Geothermal Energy Initiative: Hearing Before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, United States Senate, One Hundred Tenth Congress, First Session, to Receive Testimony on S. 1543, a Bill to Establish a National Geothermal Initiative to Encourage Increased Production of Energy from Geothermal Resources by Creating a Program of Geothermal Research, Development, Demonstration and Commercial Application to Support the Achievement of a National Geothermal Energy Goal, September 26, 2007. Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 2008.
  34. United States. Geothermal Energy Initiative: Hearing Before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, United States Senate, One Hundred Tenth Congress, First Session, to Receive Testimony on S. 1543, a Bill to Establish a National Geothermal Initiative to Encourage Increased Production of Energy from Geothermal Resources by Creating a Program of Geothermal Research, Development, Demonstration and Commercial Application to Support the Achievement of a National Geothermal Energy Goal, September 26, 2007. Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 2008.