Flip a switch and light up a room—what could be easier? Push a button on the TV remote control and be entertained. It all seems so simple that we are often unaware of the true environmental and social cost of these conveniences—and who would want to give them up even if we had to account for every penny?
But rather than thinking in terms of giving things up, let’s think positively: in the United States, right now, the installed generating capacity for geothermal stands at about 2700 megawatts. That’s the equivalent of about 58 million barrels of oil, and provides enough electricity for 3.7 million people. The cost of producing this power ranges from 4¢ to 8¢ per kilowatt hour. The geothermal industry is working to achieve a geothermal life-cycle energy cost of 3¢ per kilowatt hour. And remember, this is clean energy produced from domestic resources.
How clean? In terms of air emissions, geothermal power plants have an inherent advantage over fossil fuel plants because no combustion takes place. Geothermal plants emit no nitrogen oxides and very low amounts of sulfur dioxide—allowing them to easily meet the most stringent clean air standards. The steam at some steam plants contains hydrogen sulfide, but treatment processes remove more than 99.9% of those emissions. Typical emissions of hydrogen sulfide from geothermal plants are less than 1 part per billion— well below what people can smell. The low levels of air emissions produced are mostly carbon dioxide, which many people believe acts as a greenhouse gas to trap heat within Earth’s atmosphere. Even so, geothermal plants emit minimal amounts of carbon dioxide—1/1000 to 1/2000 of the amount produced by fossil-fuel plants.
Geothermal water sometimes contains salts and dissolved minerals. In the United States, the geothermal water is usually injected back into the reservoir from where it came, at a depth well below groundwater aquifers, after its heat energy has been extracted. This recycles the geothermal water and replenishes the reservoir. However, some geothermal plants also produce some solid materials, or sludges, that require disposal in approved sites.
All U.S. geothermal power plants are located in the states of California, Nevada, Utah, and Hawaii—home to some of the most majestic scenery on Earth. It’s fortunate, then, that these plants consume only a small amount of land, and can coexist with numerous other land uses, including agriculture, with minimal impact on the surrounding beauty.
They’re reliable and efficient, too. Taken as a group, geothermal power plants are available to generate power 95% or more of the time; they are seldom off-line for maintenance or repair. And, they have the highest capacity factors of all types of power plants. Capacity factor is the ratio of the amount of electricity a plant produces to how much electricity it is capable of producing.
Dry Steam Power Plants were the first type of geothermal power plant (in Italy in 1904). The Geysers in northern California, which is the world’s largest single source of geothermal power, is also home to this type of plant. These plants use the steam
The consumer of direct-use geothermal energy can reduce fuel costs by as much as 80%, depending on the application and the industry.