Startup: Deep, Hot, and Full of Energy

Geothermal energy is a bit like that old joke about the world’s oldest profession. Despite what our minds might want to think, a teacher is probably the oldest profession; the same is true of geothermal energy. In some way or other, it has been used for thousands of years.

A geothermal power plant.

True, it has not been widespread, but in areas where hot-springs could be found, they were immediately seized upon for their potential. Ancient civilizations used these warm wells for bathing, or harnessed the heat from geysers for other purposes. The Romans built temples around geothermic fissures, using the hot steam (usually heavily laden with other substances which could have… interesting… effects on the mind) to enhance spiritual enlightenment. Geysers have been harnessed for electricity generation, and underground volcanic heat has been used to heat homes. In Northwestern British Columbia, a great many homes use a geothermal heat pump to maintain a constant temperature regardless of the weather outside.

In the search for efficient, environmentally-friendly sources of electricity, this may be the best option out there. Its cost benefit is roughly on par with hydro-electric dams, which are among the cheapest options for a power generation source that does not produce greenhouse gases. There are downsides, however.

A hydro-electric dam has the environmental impact of flooding a huge region with a reserve source of water. Similarly, sediment will gradually settle along the face of the dam, and can eventually fill up the reservoir to the point where it blocks the water inlets. A major geothermal power plant, on the other hand, needs a region along the edge of a tectonic plate where high geothermal temperatures can be harnessed easily. Unfortunately the process — which involves injecting water into a fissure deep underground, and extracting it again once it has been sufficiently heated — has the potential to cause minor seismic activity.

The potential of this technology is enormous, but there are still many issues that need to be resolved. If, however, you’re looking for the power-generation technology that has the best chance of increasing in popularity in the next century, this one might be a safe bet.

[Image source: BBC]

  • tonyola

    Another problem with geothermal energy is that magma that's close enough to the earth's surface to be a reachable heat source pretty much only occurs in geologically unstable areas, like the edge of tectonic plates. The expensive deep wells could easily be wrecked by even a minor seismic event.

  • When I saw the lead image my immediate thought was that those were some awesome whisky stills.

    Demonstrates where my mind is right now.

  • texlenin

    Several points-
    Geothermal does not necessarily have to be near a fault. Just means a deeper well, pretty much anywhere. Faults just make it easier/cheaper to tap.You're not looking for magma, you just want enough heat to boil a working fluid in a vacuum on a consistent basis. You don't have to use water; helium, butane or even ether (closed loop systems) have been trialed before. And it keeps the ether out of meth cookers hands, which is a Good Thing!
    I've got a whole state full of drilling equipment and unemployed/partially/retired employed oil veterans. Give me some money, and I could plop a station down damn near anywhere you wanted. Cheaper, too, since you're not trying to locate a specific oil-bearing target. Just straight down.
    And yes, Rust-my-enemy, surplus heat could indeed be used to ferment up some lovely golden Genuine Rocket Bourbon. Maybe distill some saltwater while we're at it. It could indeed be a beautiful world.