Green energy is in right now—there’s no denying it. Solar power just became cheaper than coal in some parts of the world, the U.S. opened its first ocean wind farm off the coast of Rhode Island, and the market for jobs in the green energy industry is booming. But if you’re someone who’s keyed into the renewable energy movement, you may have heard of another energy source that sometimes gets tacked onto the end of a sentence, after solar and wind that is.
Geothermal energy has been a quietly growing source of clean power, but it doesn’t get the same publicity as more mainstream sources. But, why isn’t geothermal getting any press? Is there a chance your energy supplier uses it and you just don’t know it? To answer those questions, we need to take a look at the pros and cons of an exciting, but limited, renewable energy source called geothermal power technology.
The Environmental Advantages of Energy That Rises from the Earth
Geothermal is actually one of the only renewable energy sources that can produce a consistent base load of power because it doesn’t rely on weather patterns. And, it’s very environmentally friendly. It doesn’t generate significant amounts of pollution, doesn’t contribute to the buildup of greenhouse gases, and it’s naturally replenished as it comes directly from the earth.
You’ve probably seen examples of geothermal energy before, but didn’t realize it. There are massive amounts of thermal energy just below the earth’s surface, and when magma heats nearby rocks and underground aquifers, hot water will rise and be released at the surface. Natural geysers and hot springs are products of this process. You’ve almost certainly seen a video of Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park, and that’s the type of hydrology perfect for harnessing geothermal energy.
You’ve heard that steam is great for your pores, but also, as it turns out, ideal for producing electricity. The process of generating power from geothermal energy starts by pulling steaming hot water from the ground. The steam is then used to run a turbine, which powers a generator, while the water is returned to the ground to prolong the life of the energy source. In the simplest approach, steam enters the turbine directly, known as the “dry steam” process. In other cases, hot water, rather than steam, is pumped to the surface, and then depressurized or “flashed” into steam before entering the turbine.
So, what’s the catch? There has to be a reason that you aren’t hearing about geothermal booming in the same way that solar and wind currently are. That may be because there is unfortunately one very significant disadvantage.
The Disadvantage of a Steamy Energy Source
The Ring of Fire, which stretches around the continental edges of the Pacific Ocean, is responsible for 90% of earthquakes and 75% of all volcanoes on earth. If you look at a map of where geothermal energy is being used, it mostly encompasses Japan, Indonesia, and the western portion of the U.S. It’s not a coincidence that geothermal power and the Ring of Fire overlap.
To be a viable source of power on any useful scale, geothermal energy needs both the right hydrology and a high level of heat, which leads us to its main disadvantage–there aren’t many locations where the stars align to form the right natural conditions. For instance, nearly all the geothermal plants in the United States are located in one area near the Pacific coastline and the Ring of Fire.
Compared to other renewable options like coal that can be transported long distances without losing any of its useable energy, the electricity produced by geothermal energy must be used in relatively close proximity to its source. Remember how we said that dry steam was the simplest source of geothermal energy? Well, The Geysers in California is one of only two known sources of underground steam in the entire U.S., producing about one-fifth of all renewable energy used in California. Our only other source of underground steam is Yellowstone National Park—a protected area that can’t be developed.
Say It with Me: Location, Location, Location
Geothermal is close to an ideal energy source—for the areas that can actually take advantage of it. But at the moment, there isn’t much chance that someone in Ohio is going to be getting their electricity produced by geothermal sources.
There are other obstacles with geothermal energy as well, most notably with the upfront costs associated with it. Exploration, drilling, and the building of a geothermal energy plant can end up being a costly endeavor, and most geothermal resources cannot currently be used in a cost-effective way. Expenses average $2,586 per kilowatt for a geothermal energy producing plant to be built, while wind power set-up averages only $1,576.
So, what are the chances that your energy supplier is using geothermal? Well, if you live in Northern California, some of your power is probably from geothermal energy thanks to The Geysers I mentioned earlier. The Geysers provide about 60% of the electricity in the North Coast region of Northern California, generally extending from the Bay Area up to the Oregon state line. Otherwise, you likely aren’t getting any of your energy from actual geothermal production if you live in other areas.
While the plants at The Geysers have the capacity to produce over 700 megawatts a year, more than the typical coal plant which produces just 500 megawatts, there are over 500 coal-fired power plant sites in the U.S., meaning coal’s overall capacity is much greater. According to the U.S. Energy Information documents, only 7 states produced geothermal energy in 2015–all of them located in the Mountain West, or Pacific regions. So, while your energy supplier may not be able to viably implement geothermal energy at the moment—unless you happen to live near an abundant supply, that is—there are other ways to make sure your energy use is environmentally friendly.
Renewable Energy Credits, or RECs, are a Liberty Power product that allows our residential and commercial customers to power their home and business using 100% green energy. When you buy RECs, you ensure enough clean energy is being produced to offset your personal energy use, giving you peace of mind about your impact on the earth. They’re the easiest way to make your home sweet home environmentally friendly. Contact Liberty Power today to learn more about how you can purchase renewable energy credits to ensure your power is clean and green.
Photo Credit: ahisgett