Geothermal energy delivers some powerful environmental and economic benefits. If you live in an area that uses geothermal resources for electricity production, you’re quite fortunate. Consider Lake County, California, which is home to many of the geothermal power plants at our nation’s best-developed geothermal resource, The Geysers. It’s no coincidence that the Lake County air basin is the first and only one in compliance with all of California’s stringent air quality regulations.
Perhaps you own a greenhouse and need to cut exorbitant energy bills in order to stay in business. If you are located near a geothermal resource, you should know that most greenhouse growers estimate that direct use of geothermal resources instead of traditional energy sources reduces heating costs by up to 80%. This can save about 5% to 8% in total operating cost.
Assume you’re a home or business owner who has installed a geothermal heat pump. You’re not only doing your part to help make the world a cleaner place to live and breathe, you’re rewarded with low operating and maintenance costs, and, usually, lowest life-cycle costs. (Life-cycle cost is the total cost of the equipment spread over the useful life of the equipment.) In practical terms, your heat pump investment may cost you $15 per month more in mortgage payments, but it may save you $30 per month on your electric bill.
In all three of these cases, domestic, not foreign, resources are being used—a practice that has merits all its own. Nearly half of our nation’s annual trade deficit would be obliterated if we could displace imported oil with domestic energy resources. A nation’s trade deficit represents a permanent loss of wealth for the citizens of that nation. Keeping the wealth at home translates to more jobs and a robust economy. And not only does our national economic and employment picture improve, but a vital measure of national security is gained when we control our own energy supplies.
The center of the Earth is 4000 miles (6400 kilometers) deep. How hot is this region? Our best guess is 7200°F (4000°C) or higher. Partially molten rock, at temperatures between 1200° and 2200°F (650° to 1200°C), is believed to exist at depths of 50 to 60 miles (80 to 100 kilometers).
Heat is constantly flowing from the Earth’s interior to the surface. Most types of geothermal resources—hydrothermal, geopressured, hot dry rock, and magma— result from concentration of Earth’s thermal energy within certain discrete regions of the subsurface.
Hydrothermal resources are reservoirs of steam or hot water, which are formed by water seeping into the earth and collecting in, and being heated by fractured or porous hot rock. These reservoirs are tapped by drilling wells to deliver hot water to the surface for generation of electricity or direct use. Hot water resources exist in abundance around the world. In the United States, the hottest (and currently most valuable) resources are located in the western states, and Alaska and Hawaii. Technologies to tap hydrothermal resources are proven commercial processes.
Geopressured resources are deeply buried waters at moderate temperature that contain dissolved methane. While technologies are available to tap geopressured resources, they are not currently economically competitive. In the United States, this resource base is located in the Gulf coast regions of Texas and Louisiana.
Hot dry rock resources occur at depths of 5 to 10 miles (8 to 16 kilometers) everywhere beneath the Earth’s surface, and at shallower depths in certain areas. Access to these resources involves injecting cold water down one well, circulating it through hot fractured rock, and drawing off the now hot water from another well. This promising technology has been proven feasible, but no commercial applications are in use at this time.
Magma (or molten rock) resources offer extremely high-temperature geothermal opportunities, but existing technology does not allow recovery of heat from these resources.
Earth energy is the heat contained in soil and rocks at shallow depths. This resource is tapped by geothermal heat pumps.
Geothermal plants emit minimal amounts of carbon dioxide—1/1000 to 1/2000 of the amount produced by fossil-fuel plants.