Why isn’t there more use of geothermal energy for power plants?
Here’s another use for fracking: expanding access to hot rocks deep beneath Earth’s surface for energy production. In April Ormat Technologies hooked up the first such project—known in the lingo as an enhanced geothermal system, or EGS—to the nation’s electric grid near Reno, Nev.
“The big prize is EGS,” enthuses Douglas Hollett, director of the Geothermal Technologies Office at the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE). “The key is learning how to do it in a reliable way, in a responsible way.”
By some estimates, the U.S. could tap as much as 2,000 times the nation’s current annual energy use of roughly 100 exajoules (an exajoule equals a quintillion, or 1018joules) via enhanced geothermal technologies. With respect to electricity, the DoE concludes at least 500 gigawatts of electric capacity could be harvested from such EGS systems. Even better, hot rocks underlie every part of the country and the rest of the world. Australia’s first enhanced geothermal system, spicily named Habanero, began producing power in May, and Europe has brought three such power plants online.
The idea is simple: pump water or other fluids down to the hot rocks beneath the surface. Heat from the rocks turns the water to steam. The steam rises and turns a turbine that spins a magnet to make electricity.
The technology is proved. For years people have turned naturally produced steam from hot springs and the like into electricity. A geothermal power plant in Larderello, Italy, has churned out electricity this way in Tuscany for more than a century, and big power plants can be built this way. The Geysers in California can produce 850 megawatts of electricity alone. But that’s because the geothermal resource is close to the surface and obvious, thanks to hot steam rising into the sky.
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