The word geothermal comes from the Greek words geo (earth) and therme (heat). So, geothermal energy is heat from within the earth. We can use the steam and hot water produced inside the earth to heat buildings or generate electricity. Geothermal energy is a renewable energy source because the water is replenished by rainfall and the heat is continuously produced inside the earth.
Geothermal energy is generated in the earth's core, about 4,000 miles below the surface. Temperatures hotter than the sun's surface are continuously produced inside the earth by the slow decay of radioactive particles, a process that happens in all rocks. The earth has a number of different layers: The core itself has two layers: a solid iron core and an outer core made of very hot melted rock, called magma. The mantle which surrounds the core and is about 1,800 miles thick. It is made up of magma and rock. The crust is the outermost layer of the earth, the land that forms the continents and ocean floors. It can be three to five miles thick under the oceans and 15 to 35 miles thick on the continents. The earth's crust is broken into pieces called plates. Magma comes close to the earth's surface near the edges of these plates. This is where volcanoes occur. The lava that erupts from volcanoes is partly magma. Deep underground, the rocks and water absorb the heat from this magma. The temperature of the rocks and water get hotter and hotter as you go deeper underground. People around the world use geothermal energy to heat their homes and to produce electricity by digging deep wells and pumping the heated underground water or steam to the surface. Or, we can make use of the stable temperatures near the surface of the earth to heat and cool buildings.
Most geothermal reservoirs are deep underground with no visible clues showing above ground. Geothermal energy can sometimes find its way to the surface in the form of: volcanoes and fumaroles (holes where volcanic gases are released) hot springs and geysers. The most active geothermal resources are usually found along major plate boundaries where earthquakes and volcanoes are concentrated. Most of the geothermal activity in the world occurs in an area called the Ring of Fire. This area rims the Pacific Ocean.
When magma comes close to the surface it heats ground water found trapped in porous rock or water running along fractured rock surfaces and faults. Such hydrothermal resources have two common ingredients: water (hydro) and heat (thermal). Naturally occurring large areas of hydrothermal resources are called geothermal reservoirs. Geologists use different methods to look for geothermal reservoirs. Drilling a well and testing the temperature deep underground is the only way to be sure a geothermal reservoir really exists. Most of the geothermal reservoirs in the United States are located in the western states, Alaska, and Hawaii. California is the state that generates the most electricity from geothermal energy. The Geysers dry steam reservoir in northern California is the largest known dry steam field in the world. The field has been producing electricity since 1960.
Some applications of geothermal energy use the earth's temperatures near the surface, while others require drilling miles into the earth. The three main uses of geothermal energy are:
1) Direct Use and District Heating Systems which use hot water from springs or reservoirs near the surface.
2) Electricity generation in a power plant requires water or steam at very high temperature (300 to 700 degrees Fahrenheit). Geothermal power plants are generally built where geothermal reservoirs are located within a mile or two of the surface.
3) Geothermal heat pumps use stable ground or water temperatures near the earth's surface to control building temperatures above ground.
The direct use of hot water as an energy source has been happening since ancient times. The Romans, Chinese, and Native Americans used hot mineral springs for bathing, cooking and heating.
Hot water near the earth's surface can be piped directly into buildings and industries for heat. A district heating system provides heat for 95 percent of the buildings in Reykjavik, Iceland.
In Iceland, there are five major geothermal power plants which produce about 26% (2006) of the country's electricity. In addition, geothermal heating meets the heating and hot water requirements for around 87% of the nation's housing. In 2006, 26.5% of electricity generation in Iceland came from geothermal energy, 73.4% from hydro power, and 0.1% from fossil fuels
GEOTHERMAL POWER PLANTS
Geothermal power plants use hydrothermal resources which have two common ingredients: water (hydro) and heat (thermal). Geothermal plants require high temperature (300 to 700 degrees Fahrenheit) hydrothermal resources that may come from either dry steam wells or hot water wells. We can use these resources by drilling wells into the earth and piping the steam or hot water to the surface. Geothermal wells are one to two miles deep.
The United States generates more geothermal electricity than any other country but the amount of electricity it produces is less than 1 percent of electricity produced in United States. Only four states have geothermal power plants:
There are three basic types of geothermal power plants:
GEOTHERMAL HEAT PUMPS
While temperatures above ground change a lot from day to day and season to season, temperatures in the upper 10 feet of the Earth's surface hold nearly constant between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. For most areas, this means that soil temperatures are usually warmer than the air in winter and cooler than the air in summer. Geothermal heat pumps use the Earth's constant temperatures to heat and cool buildings. They transfer heat from the ground (or water) into buildings in winter and reverse the process in the summer.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), geothermal heat pumps are the most energy-efficient, environmentally clean, and cost-effective systems for temperature control. Although, most homes still use traditional furnaces and air conditioners, geothermal heat pumps are becoming more popular. In recent years, the U.S. Department of Energy along with the EPA have partnered with industry to promote the use of geothermal heat pumps.
Types of Geothermal Heat Pump Systems
There are four basic types of ground loop systems. Three of these—horizontal, vertical, and pond/lake—are closed-loop systems. The fourth type of system is the open-loop option. Which one of these is best depends on the climate, soil conditions, available land, and local installation costs at the site. All of these approaches can be used for residential and commercial building applications.
This type of installation is generally most cost-effective for residential installations, particularly for new construction where sufficient land is available. It requires trenches at least four feet deep. The most common layouts either use two pipes, one buried at six feet, and the other at four feet, or two pipes placed side-by-side at five feet in the ground in a two-foot wide trench. The Slinky™ method of looping pipe allows more pipe in a shorter trench, which cuts down on installation costs and makes horizontal installation possible in areas it would not be with conventional horizontal applications.
Large commercial buildings and schools often use vertical systems because the land area required for horizontal loops would be prohibitive. Vertical loops are also used where the soil is too shallow for trenching, and they minimize the disturbance to existing landscaping. For a vertical system, holes (approximately four inches in diameter) are drilled about 20 feet apart and 100–400 feet deep. Into these holes go two pipes that are connected at the bottom with a U-bend to form a loop. The vertical loops are connected with horizontal pipe (i.e., manifold), placed in trenches, and connected to the heat pump in the building.
If the site has an adequate water body, this may be the lowest cost option. A supply line pipe is run underground from the building to the water and coiled into circles at least eight feet under the surface to prevent freezing. The coils should only be placed in a water source that meets minimum volume, depth, and quality criteria.
This type of system uses well or surface body water as the heat exchange fluid that circulates directly through the GHP system. Once it has circulated through the system, the water returns to the ground through the well, a recharge well, or surface discharge. This option is obviously practical only where there is an adequate supply of relatively clean water, and all local codes and regulations regarding groundwater discharge are met.
GEOTHERMAL ENERGY AND THE ENVIRONMENT
The environmental impact of geothermal energy depends on how it is being used.
credit: NOAA, U.S. DOE, American Wind Energy Association, Bureau of Land Management, Sandia National Labooratory