If you’ve ever soaked in water from a natural hot spring, you’re one of the millions of people around the world who has enjoyed the direct use of geothermal energy. And while this naturally occurring hot water may be the perfect tonic for frayed nerves and sore muscles, it’s capable of much more.
In the United States alone, direct geothermal applications (not including geothermal heat pumps) have an installed capacity of 500 thermal megawatts, which is roughly equivalent to saving half a million barrels of oil per year. This includes approximately 40 greenhouses, 30 fish farms, 190 resorts and spas, 125 space and district heating projects, and 10 industrial projects.
The resource required for these applications is widespread across the western third of the United States. This is water in an underground reservoir, at low-to-moderate temperatures usually ranging from 68° to 302°F (20° to 150°C). The consumer of direct-use geothermal energy can count on savings in energy costs—as much as an 80% reduction from traditional fuel costs, depending on the application and the industry. Direct-use systems typically require a larger initial investment, but have lower operating costs and no need for ongoing fuel purchases, therefore reducing life-cycle costs.
In a typical application, a well brings heated water to the surface; a mechanical system—piping, heat exchanger, controls—delivers the heat to the space or process; and a disposal system either injects the cooled geothermal fluid underground or disposes of it on the surface.
The direct use of geothermal energy offers some heartening possibilities. Imagine an entire community of people having their homes heated geothermally. Sound like something way off in the future? Not at all. In 1893, the citizens of Boise, Idaho, put their pioneering spirit to work and built the world’s first geothermal district heating system by piping water from a nearby hot spring. Within a few years, the system was providing heat to 200 homes and 40 downtown businesses—and the system continues to flourish today.
There are now 18 district heating systems in the United States (including one in Klamath Falls, Oregon, that melts snow from the city’s downtown sidewalks), and the potential for more is tremendous. A recently updated resource inventory of 10 western states identified 271 communities located within 5 miles (8 kilometers) of a geothermal resource.
Greenhouse operators are taking advantage of geothermal direct use in growing numbers, with nearly 40 greenhouses (many of which are several acres in size) producing vegetables, flowers, houseplants, and tree seedlings in eight western states. Operators of fish farms are profiting from the lower energy costs and improved fish growth rates that geothermal energy delivers. Other industrial and commercial applications that match well with geothermal direct use include food dehydration, laundries, gold processing, milk pasteurizing, and swimming pools and spas.
The number of satisfied geothermal heat pump customers stands at 95% or higher.