The Big Question: Is geothermal energy the future of clean energy?

Geothermal Energy

Why we are asking this now?

The difference between world’s energy demand and supply is growing everyday. Along with this, the existing sources of electricity are depleting faster than ever as the global economy get more dependent on fossil fuels than ever. There is not only an economic side of this story. Rather, on a bad note, the use of fossil fuels has endangered the world with twin threats of climate change and global warming. This situation has also prompted many to search and switch over to green sources of electricity. But the rate at which this is happening is far from satisfactory. There are many technological, policy-level and budgetary challenges that have so far prevented the full growth of renewable energy sector.

The idea of tapping geothermal energy for meeting the electricity demand of the world is also facing similar challenges. As, little has been done so far even when many have claimed that the geothermal energy can alone supply electricity for the entire world. Not only this, it would be cheap, non-radioactive and emission-free electricity.

Is it really that serious?

Yes. This can be judged from the fact that most of the world’s politics revolves around energy as countries try to push themselves on an advantage position with respect to the others. Wars have been fought on this issue in recent times. Many have even alleged that the major inspiration behind the US’s bombing of Iraq post 9/11 was the vast oil reserves of this turbulent nation.

As far as the issue of geothermal energy is concerned, scientific facts speak in its favor. Most of the earth is made up of heat and different types of rocks are differently heated as one go to different layers of the earth. The heat only grows as one go deeper below the surface. Scientists have proposed to capture a portion of earth’s heat and convert it into electricity. Such electricity would be carbon-neutral and inexhaustible. With little efforts, they say, geothermal energy can supply electricity for the whole world.

What others are saying:

Are Lund, senior researcher at the SINTEF Material and Chemistry, says,

If we can drill and recover just a fraction of the geothermal heat that exists, there will be enough to supply the entire planet with energy – energy that is clean and safe.

Jefferson Tester, professor of chemical engineering at the MIT Laboratory, says,

Geothermal has a couple of distinct differences. One, it is very scalable in baseload. Our coal-fired plants produce electricity 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The nuclear power plants are the same way. Geothermal can meet that, without any need for auxiliary storage or a backup system.

Unni Skoglund, writer for GEMINI, says:

Geothermal heat offers incredible potential. It is an inexhaustible energy source that is nearly emission-free. Heat energy is found in the different rock types that make up the Earth’s surface, and deeper in the crust. The deeper you get, the hotter it is.

The developments:

1. Utah’s 10MW geothermal power plant ready to function


Raser Technologies has constructed the first geothermal power plant in Utah in over 20-years. Constructed in just six-month time, the power plant can provide 10MW of electricity to the city. It has been constructed along the largest geothermal hotbed discovered in last 25-years.

2. Canadian university harnesses geothermal energy for heat and power


The University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Canada has started this ambitious $4 million project for capturing geothermal energy to meet all the power demands on campus. 375 boreholes at the cost of $10,000 each have been dug in the campus area for this. It can produce 8 MW electricity which can be supplied to about 1000 homes in and around the campus of the university.

3. Acconia crafts zero-emission headquarters using solar and geothermal energy


Solar and thermal energy development firm Acconia has constructed geothermal and solar energy-based zero-emission new headquarter. The building is completely powered by multiple green sources like sunlight, solar thermal power, geothermal energy and biodiesel. The entire building walls from outside and the roof top is covered with photovoltaic cells. They generate solar power which is transferred to a central unit. The central unit also receive power generated by tapping the geothermal energy.

The main hurdles:

Some of the hurdles behind large-scale harvesting of geothermal energy are:

1. Cost consideration as large amount of money is needed for drilling the surface of earth.

2. Geothermal power plants would require a large amount of land which is not easily available.

3. The possible impact of geothermal plants on the surface ecology is unknown. It may be bad.

4. Adequate technology for deep drilling and capturing this energy is not available world wide.

What can be done?

Geothermal energy can become a future source of energy for the entire world. However, it would require a large scale policy-level and technological collaboration among countries and organizations. For instance, many oil companies dig well below 10,000-12,000 feet to fetch oil and gas from below the earth’s surface. Their expertise could be used for geothermal plants and even the oil wells could become sites for capturing geothermal energy if proper technology could be developed.