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The enormous potential of geothermal energy

Updated: Aug 24, 2021

Miles below the Earth's surface in the form of renewable energy that could potentially sustain all of humanity's energy need for the foreseeable future. Just 0.1% of the Earth's total head content could meet our energy needs for over 2 million years. It's called geothermal energy and it's not a new discovery, but in use since the late 1800s to warm houses and generate electricity in the US. In 1960, Pacific Gas and Electric began operation of the first successful geothermal electric power plant in the United States at The Geysers in California. The original turbine lasted for more than 30 years and produced 11 MW net power.

The most obvious sign of geothermal energy is when it breaks through the surface creating hot springs. The first geothermal plants were put in places where steam was coming right out of the ground. Today there are about 60 geothermal plants in the US and over 29 countries are using this source of power.

Steam rising from the Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Station in Iceland
Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Station in Iceland

So what's stopping us from using this zero-carbon emitting source of energy that can potentially sustain us for such a long period? The fact is that it is technically challenging and quite expensive to drill geothermal wells. The hotter and drier the rocks are the more difficult it is. And now, that wind, solar, nuclear power are becoming so cheap and at a scale that there hasn't been much economic motive to explore geothermal technology. It is mostly confined to very specific geographies where naturally porous, fractured rock creates a reservoir of hot water allowing the heat from the earth's core to come up to the surface.

How does it work

In traditional geothermal plants, cold water is passed through pipes into the depths of the earth at a level where there is sufficient heat to convert the water to steam. This steam is then brought up again to the earth's surface where the steam is used to run a turbine and the cold water is again passed down to be heated again. Thus cycle can run for years and 24X7 not requiring any kind of storage solution which is the major drawback of solar and wind energy.

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But that is changing fast.

As the world is realizing day by day the effects of using fossil fuels and sustainability, the speed of research into geothermal energy is increasing. Companies like Chevron and BP are getting into the game and making huge investments in the geothermal space. It's a natural fit for these companies as the skills required to drill for oil are quite similar to drill for geothermal.

Advances in drilling technology are enabling us to extract this source of power from places where it was not feasible before. A company Fervo Energy is working on a technology called as EGS or enhanced geothermal systems which enable them to create artificial reservoirs to extract energy from. It is basically a form of fracking in the oil industry. It involves drilling down and injecting water at high pressure causing the rocks to fracture. The water then is brought back to the surface through the production well where it is converted to steam at low pressure and turns the turbine. You can get up to 4 times the energy using EGS than traditional technology, which means the cost is a lot lower and makes this technology usable in multiple locations.

Another technology in this field is called AGS or Advanced geothermal systems and is currently being developed by GreenFire Energy and Eavor Technologies. These technologies don't rely on fracturing the rock like in EGS technology but is basically a subsurface heat exchange system. A highly conductive fluid perhaps water flows down to the rocks, heats up from the heat energy, and is then carried back to the surface without coming in contact with the rocks below. It is a pure conductive system and eliminates the risk of EGS like seismic activities during the fracturing process.

EGS and AGS geothermal energy technology

A company Greesage is trying to combine both the EGS and AGS technology to eliminate disadvantages from both and allow to build geothermal plants in much more locations over the world bringing down the cost of energy produced down to extreme lows.

Though it is too difficult now to predict the overall contribution of geothermal energy in the future or which company and technology will come out to be more successful but oil and gas industry combined with geothermal potential can literally solve energy!


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