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Geothermal energy is thermal energy generated and stored in the Earth. Thermal energy is the energy that determines the temperature of matter. The Geothermal energy of the Earth's crust originates from the original formation of the planet (20%) and from radioactive decay of minerals (80%). The geothermal gradient, which is the difference in temperature between the core of the planet and its surface, drives a continuous conduction of thermal energy in the form of heat from the core to the surface. The adjective geothermal originates from the Greek roots (ge), meaning earth, and (thermos), meaning hot. At the core of the Earth, thermal energy is created by radioactive decay and temperatures may reach over 5000 degrees Celsius (9,000 degrees Fahrenheit). Heat conducts from the core to surrounding cooler rock. The high temperature and pressure cause some rock to melt, creating magma convection upward since it is lighter than the solid rock. The magma heats rock and water in the crust, sometimes up to 370 degrees Celsius (700 degrees Fahrenheit).

From hotsprings, geothermal energy has been used for bathing since Paleolithic times and for space heating since ancient Roman times, but it is now better known for electricity generation. Worldwide, about 10,715 megawatts (MW) of geothermal power is online in 24 countries. An additional 28 gigawatts of direct geothermal heating capacity is installed for district heating, space heating, spas, industrial processes, desalination and agricultural applications. Geothermal power is cost effective, reliable, sustainable, and environmentally friendly, but has historically been limited to areas near tectonic plate boundaries. Recent technological advances have dramatically expanded the range and size of viable resources, especially for applications such as home heating, opening a potential for widespread exploitation. Geothermal wells release greenhouse gases trapped deep within the earth, but these emissions are much lower per energy unit than those of fossil fuels. As a result, geothermal power has the potential to help mitigate global warming if widely deployed in place of fossil fuels. The Earth's geothermal resources are theoretically more than adequate to supply humanity's energy needs, but only a very small fraction may be profitably exploited. Drilling and exploration for deep resources is very expensive. Forecasts for the future of geothermal power depend on assumptions about technology, energy prices, subsidies, and interest rates. Polls show that customers would be willing to pay a little more for a renewable energy source like geothermal. But as a result of government assisted research and industry experience, the cost of generating geothermal power has decreased by 25% over the past two decades. In 2001, geothermal energy cost between two and ten cents per kwh.


History says that the first use of geothermal energy occurred more than 10,000 years ago in North America by American Paleo-Indians. People used water from hot springs for cooking, bathing and cleaning. The first industrial use of geothermal energy began near Pisa, Italy in late 18th century. Steam coming from natural vents (and from drilled holes) was used to extract boric acid from the hot pools that are now known as the Larderello fields. In 1904, Italian scientist Piero Ginori Conti invented the first geothermal electric power plant in which steam was used to generate the power. With the above experiment, the first geothermal plant in USA started in 1922 with a capacity of 250 kilowatts. It produced little output and due to technical glitch had to be shut down. However, in 1946 first ground-source geothermal heat pump installed at Commonwealth Building in Portland, Oregon. During the 1960's, pacific gas and electric began operation of first large scale geothermal power plant in San Francisco, producing 11 megawatts. Today there are more than 60 geothermal power plants operating in USA at 18 sites across the country. In 1973, when oil crisis began many countries began looking for renewable energy sources and by 1980's geothermal heat pumps (GHP) started gaining popularity in order to reduce heating and cooling costs.

As effect of climate change started showing results, governments of various countries joined hands to fight against it, for which Kyoto Protocol was signed in Japan in 1997, laid out emission targets for rich countries and required that they transfer funds and technology to developing countries, 184 countries have ratified it. Geothermal power today supplies less than 1% of the world's energy in 2009 needs but it is expected to supply 10-20% of world's energy requirement by 2050. Geothermal power plants today are operating in about 20 countries which are actively visited by earthquakes and volcanoes.

A geothermal power plant at The Geysers. First geothermal power plant, 1904, Lardarello, Italy


What are the characteristics of geothermal resources? Some visible features of geothermal energy are volcanoes, hot springs, geysers, and fumaroles. But you cannot see most geothermal resources. They are deep underground. There may be no clues above ground that a geothermal reservoir is present below. Geologists use different methods to find geothermal reservoirs. The only way to be sure there is a reservoir is to drill a well and test the temperature deep underground. The most active geothermal resources are usually found along major plate boundaries where earthquakes and volcanoes are concentrated. Most of the geothermal activity in the world occurs in an area called the Ring of Fire. This area borders the Pacific Ocean.


Most power plants need steam to generate electricity. The steam rotates a turbine that activates a generator, which produces electricity. Many power plants still use fossil fuels to boil water for steam. Geothermal power plants, however, use steam produced from reservoirs of hot water found a couple of miles or more below the Earth's surface. There are three types of geothermal power plants: dry steam, flash steam, and binary cycle. Dry steam power plants draw from underground resources of steam. The steam is piped directly from underground wells to the power plant, where it is directed into a turbine/generator unit. There are only two known underground resources of steam in the United States: The Geysers in northern California and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, where there's a well-known geyser called Old Faithful. Since Yellowstone is protected from development, the only dry steam plants in the country are at The Geysers.

This geothermal power plant generates electricity for the Imperial Valley in California. Flash steam power plants are the most common. They use geothermal reservoirs of water with temperatures greater than 360F (182C). This very hot water flows up through wells in the ground under its own pressure. As it flows upward, the pressure decreases and some of the hot water boils into steam. The steam is then separated from the water and used to power a turbine/generator. Any leftover water and condensed steam are injected back into the reservoir, making this a sustainable resource. Binary cycle power plants operate on water at lower temperatures of about 225-360F (107182C). These plants use the heat from the hot water to boil a working fluid, usually an organic compound with a low boiling point. The working fluid is vaporized in a heat exchanger and used to turn a turbine. The water is then injected back into the ground to be reheated. The water and the working fluid are kept separated during the whole process, so there are little or no air emissions. Small-scale geothermal power plants (under 5 megawatts) have the potential for widespread application in rural areas, possibly even as distributed energy resources. Distributed energy resources refer to a variety of small, modular power-generating technologies that can be combined to improve the operation of the electricity delivery system. In the United States, most geothermal reservoirs are located in the western states, Alaska and Hawaii.


In the geothermal industry, low temperature means temperatures of 300 F (149 C) or less. Low-temperature geothermal resources are typically used in direct-use applications, such as district heating, greenhouses, fisheries, mineral recovery, and industrial process heating. However, some low-temperature resources can generate electricity using binary cycle electricity generating technology. Approximately 70 countries made direct use of 270 petajoules (PJ) of geothermal heating in 2004. More than half went for space heating, and another third for heated pools. The remainder supported industrial and agricultural applications. Global installed capacity was 28 GW, but capacity factors tend to be low (30% on average) since heat is mostly needed in winter. The above figures are dominated by 88 PJ of space heating extracted by an estimated 1.3 million geothermal heat pumps with a total capacity of 15 GW. Heat pumps for home heating are the fastest-growing means of exploiting geothermal energy, with a global annual growth rate of 30% in energy production.

Direct heating is far more efficient than electricity generation and places less demanding temperature requirements on the heat resource. Heat may come from co-generation via a geothermal electrical plant or from smaller wells or heat exchangers buried in shallow ground. As a result, geothermal heating is economic at many more sites than geothermal electricity generation. Where natural hot springs or geysers are available, the heated water can be piped directly into radiators. If the ground is hot but dry, earth tubes or downhole heat exchangers can collect the heat. But even in areas where the ground is colder than room temperature, heat can still be extracted with a geothermal heat pump more cost-effectively and cleanly than by conventional furnaces. These devices draw on much shallower and colder resources than traditional geothermal techniques, and they frequently combine a variety of functions, including air conditioning, seasonal energy storage, solar energy collection and electric heating. Geothermal heat pumps can be used for space heating essentially anywhere. Geothermal heat supports many applications. District heating applications use networks of piped hot water to heat many buildings across entire communities. More than 72 countries have reported direct use of geothermal energy, Iceland being the world leader. 93% of its homes are heated with geothermal energy, saving Iceland over $100 million annually in avoided oil imports.Reykjavik, Iceland has the biggest district heating system on the globe. Once known as the most polluted city in the world, it is now one of the cleanest due to geothermal energy.

Some of the best places to build a geothermal energy plant is in the Western United States, specifically California, Nevada, Utah, Nebraska, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington. However, the use of geothermal energy is not limited to generating electricity. There are now mini geothermal heat pumps, which can be installed for a single building and are designed to heat, cool and provide hot water for a single structure. On a small scale, the well into the ground does not have to be very deep, which means it is a lot less expensive to install, and it can cut heating costs 30-70% and cooling costs 20-50% a year. As little as 200 ft. into the ground the temperature is a stable 55 degrees year round, so in the winter it is a reliable heat source for water and general heating.

Drilling sites for commercial sized plants are not cheap. Fortunately most of the costs are up front and compared to oil, which has low up front costs but more maintenance costs, the costs over time for geothermal energy are minimal. All in all it costs between $5-10 million dollars or $100-200/ kWh to build an industrial geothermal plant. Because the exploration and drilling costs are so steep, scientists are looking to expand already made wells instead of creating new ones and some are even experimenting with turning oil wells into geothermal heat sources. One company named "Potter Drilling" uses hot water heated to 1,472 degrees Fahrenheit that can blast through the hard rock, which surrounds geothermal reservoirs. This would not only decrease the need for costly drill bits but would prevent the risk of the drill bit breaking inside the well. With the plants that we have now in the United States, we have the capacity to produce 2 GWh of electricity and experts say we can develop commercial size production plants within the next 10-15 years. "EGS [Enhanced Geothermal systems] could provide 100 GWe or more of costcompetitive generating capacity in the next 50 years. Jefferson Tester, Professor of Sustainable Energy Systems in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Cornell University estimates the figure for the whole world [of usable geothermal energy] is on the order of over 27 trillion GWh . We now use worldwide just over one 111 million GWh's per year .

Not only is this a viable energy resource, but geothermal power plants can bring substantial revenue to rural, and mostly minority populated areas. It is estimated that for every $1 spent on geothermal energy $2.50 is created and kept in the local community, either through taxes, company contributions or worker's wages. Geothermal energy plants create long-term stable employment to mostly low-income, rural communities. Geothermal plants in the U.S. alone are estimated to provide 23,949 direct, indirect and induced jobs within the next thirty years. They are not only stable, quality, long term jobs but they pay higher wages and create more jobs per KW than natural gas production. Geothermal plants also bring in a modest income as a tourist attraction from entrepreneurs, students and businesses interested in studying geothermal energy.

Because geothermal is a stable energy source and can operate 365 days a year, it is a viable alternative to coal and nuclear energy, which currently provides our most continuous energy supply. Solar and wind power are good, renewable energy sources but are not consistent and their energy must be stored when there is no sun or wind. However, geothermal reservoirs do not produce their premium energy supply forever. Over the years, many plants produce less steam, operate at lower temperatures and overall become less efficient with time. The life of most geothermal plants is about 30 years. However with regular maintenance and repair, they can last many times that. With the Government giving oil subsidies to the tune of $18 billion dollars a year and Obama's goal to be independent of foreign fossil fuels, geothermal presents an attractive alternative for fuel subsidies. Already there are grants available for renewable energy sources, geothermal among them, by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) which can help offset the upfront cost of a geothermal plant. Geothermal is quickly becoming a more attractive alternative, and could be one of the lights at the end of the energy crisis tunnel. As the market for alternative energies increases, so will the demand for this kind of clean, renewable energy and its attractiveness as a large and small-scale energy source will make it appealing to both businesses and individuals alike.

The Earth's internal thermal energy flows to the surface by conduction at a rate of 44.2 terawatts (TW), and is replenished by radioactive decay of minerals at a rate of 30 TW. These power rates are more than double humanitys current energy consumption from all primary sources, but most of this energy flow is not recoverable. In addition to the internal heat flows, the top layer of the surface to a depth of 10 meters (33 ft) is heated by solar energy during the summer, and releases that energy and cools during the winter. Outside of the seasonal variations, the geothermal gradient of temperatures through the crust is 2530 C (4554 F) per kilometer of depth in most of the world. The conductive heat flux averages 0.1 MW/km2. These values are much higher near tectonic plate boundaries where the crust is thinner. They may be further augmented by fluid circulation, either through magma conduits, hot springs, hydrothermal circulation or a combination of these.

A geothermal heat pump can extract enough heat from shallow ground anywhere in the world to provide home heating, but industrial applications need the higher temperatures of deep resources. The thermal efficiency and profitability of electricity generation is particularly sensitive to temperature. The more demanding applications receive the greatest benefit from a high natural heat flux, ideally from using a hot spring. The next best option is to drill a well into a hot aquifer. If no adequate aquifer is available, an artificial one may be built by injecting water to hydraulically fracture the bedrock. This last approach is called hot dry rock geothermal energy in Europe, or enhanced geothermal systems in North America.


Geothermal power is considered to be renewable because any projected heat extraction is small compared to the Earth's heat content. The Earth has an internal heat content of 1031 joules(31015 TWhr). About 20% of this is residual heat from planetary accretion, and the remainder is attributed to higher radioactive decay rates that existed in the past. Natural heat flows are not in equilibrium, and the planet is slowly cooling down on geologic timescales. Human extraction taps a minute fraction of the natural outflow, often without accelerating it. Geothermal power is also considered to be sustainable thanks to its power to sustain the Earths intricate ecosystems. By using geothermal sources of energy present generations of humans will not endanger the capability of future generations to use their own resources to the same amount that those energy sources are presently used. Further, due to its low emissions geothermal energy is considered to have excellent potential for mitigation of global warming.

Even though geothermal power is globally sustainable, extraction must still be monitored to avoid local depletion. Over the course of decades, individual wells draw down local temperatures and water levels until a new equilibrium is reached with natural flows. The three oldest sites, at Larderello, Wairakei, and the Geysers have experienced reduced output because of local depletion. Heat and water, in uncertain proportions, were extracted faster than they were replenished. If production is reduced and water is reinjected, these wells could theoretically recover their full potential. Such mitigation strategies have already been implemented at some sites. The long-term sustainability of geothermal energy has been demonstrated at the Lardarello field in Italy since 1913, at the Wairakei field in New Zealand since 1958, and at The Geysers field in California since 1960. Falling electricity production may be boosted through drilling additional supply boreholes, as at Poihipi and Ohaaki. The Wairakei power station has been running much longer, with its first unit commissioned in November 1958, and it attained its peak generation of 173MW in 1965, but already the supply of high-pressure steam was faltering, in 1982 being derated to intermediate pressure and the station managing 157MW. Around the start of the 20th century it was managing about 150MW, then in 2005 two 8MW isopentane systems were added, boosting the station's output by about 14MW. Detailed data are unavailable, being lost due to reorganisations. One such re-organisation in 1996 causes the absence of early data for Poihipi (started 1996), and the gap in 1996/7 for Wairakei and Ohaaki; half-hourly data for Ohaaki's first few months of operation are also missing, as well as for most of Wairakei's history.


Geothermal energy is a renewable energy source that can be used to offset the use of fossil fuels as well as the emission ofgreenhouse gases. Geothermal energy was created by the formation of the Earth and is replenished through the radioactive decay of core minerals and the shifting of tectonic plates. The solar rays that constantly strike the earths surface also add to the amount of geothermal energy found within the planet. Geothermal energy is already used by approximately 70 countries across the globe and is capable of supplying 75% to 100% of the commercial energy needed. This would significantly lower the amount of pollution generated. However despite all these benefits, geothermal energy is not completely pollutant free. The energy plants themselves are capable of releasing pollutants. While the geothermal energy is being extracted, noxious gases and elements are released, such as carbon dioxide, mercury, and sulphur. When released into the atmosphere, these things contribute to acid rain and global warming, things that renewable energy is generally used to lessen. Greenhouse gases are also emitted.

There is a case to be made against geothermal energy because of these extraction emissions. However while there are pollutants involved with geothermal energy, fewer emissions are released than when fossil fuels are used for energy. If geothermal energy was used in full in place of fossil fuels, it would have a much smaller impact upon the environment. These emissions can be offset by injecting any fluids brought to the surface through geothermal energy back into the earth. This is referred to as carbon capture and storage. Hot water from geothermal sources may contain trace amounts of dangerous elements such as mercury, arsenic, and antimony. If this water is released into rivers or other bodies of water it can be extremely dangerous to humans and animals who may consume the contaminated liquid. Any program to utilize geothermal energy needs to allow for the capture of these elements.

Another aspect to consider is the influence of the geothermal power plants upon the site. Geothermal activity can cause foundational problems with surrounding land, especially if water is used in correlation with hot dry rock. If the site is overused, or if a plant is larger than the geothermal sites capacity, it is possible to deplete the area of its geothermal energy. This has a hard impact upon the environment, and excess pollution from the remainder of the plant can also cause problems. Geothermal power plants have minimal land and fresh water requirements compared to other energy sources. Current geothermal plants use 1-8 acres per megawatt (MW) versus 5-10 acres per MW for nuclear operations and 19 acres per MW for coal power plants. They use 20 liters of fresh water per MWh versus over 1,000 liters per MWh for nuclear, coal, or oil. Geothermal energy has environmental implications to consider. However when compared tofossil fuels, the impact of geothermal energy on the environment is much smaller relative to its benefits.