Geothermal power, once sidelined in the energy sector, is now experiencing an unexpected resurgence. For years, energy experts considered geothermal energy a marginal player, overshadowed by dominant fuels like natural gas and emerging technologies like solar power. Its high cost and geographic limitations led many to believe it would never contribute more than 1% to America’s electricity needs.
However, recent advancements in enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) have changed the game. These developments could potentially allow geothermal power to contribute between 10 and 20 percent of the country’s electricity in the future, according to studies by the Department of Energy and Princeton University.
One of the most significant advantages of enhanced geothermal is its ability to provide continuous power, addressing the intermittency issue commonly faced by solar and wind energy. Unlike these sources, geothermal power plants can operate consistently, regardless of weather conditions or time of day.
This article delves into the history, present status, and future potential of enhanced geothermal energy. Topics include:
- The evolution of traditional geothermal power.
- Reasons behind traditional geothermal’s stagnation in the 1990s.
- How a side project by nuclear weapons scientists at Los Alamos in the 1970s led to the first tests in enhanced geothermal.
- The impact of recent fracking technology on geothermal innovation.
- The role of government incentives in advancing this technology.
- Potential obstacles to geothermal’s growth.
The earth’s core is incredibly hot, reaching temperatures similar to the sun’s surface. This heat, accessible even a few thousand feet below the surface, has been used by humans for millennia. However, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that we harnessed geothermal energy for electricity.
In 1904, Italian aristocrat Piero Ginori Conti built the world’s first geothermal power engine, capable of powering five light bulbs. Since then, geothermal technology has evolved significantly, but the fundamental principle remains the same – extracting steam or superheated water from beneath the earth’s surface to power turbines.
Geothermal power began spreading globally in the 1920s. In Northern California’s The Geysers, the first successful geothermal system outside Italy was established after initial setbacks. This region eventually hosted the world’s largest geothermal power plant.
However, the growth of geothermal energy was not smooth. After a surge in the 1970s due to rising energy prices and federal incentives, interest waned by the 1980s as energy prices fell and focus shifted away from renewables. Traditional geothermal power plants faced a significant limitation: the scarcity of naturally occurring permeable rock and water.
Enhanced geothermal systems emerged as a solution. In the 1960s, engineers at Los Alamos National Laboratory, including Bob Potter, began exploring the idea of using hydraulic fracturing technology to create fissures in rock and harness the earth’s heat for electricity. Despite initial challenges and lack of formal support, their experiments laid the groundwork for today’s enhanced geothermal systems.
As we look towards a future where clean energy is increasingly vital, understanding the potential and challenges of geothermal power is more important than ever. This deep dive into geothermal energy’s past, present, and future offers insights into its role in decarbonizing America’s power sector.