Geothermal Power, the energy of the depths

Carlos Bousoño Crespo, Abengoa’s director of  Waste to Biofuels

On the night of March 20, 2010 a thunderous roar broke the nocturnal silence in the Fimmvörðuháls region of Iceland. The Eyjafjallajökull volcano had burst into life. The effect of the volcano was the cause of Europe’s worst air traffic chaos of the century, and held consequences for the world economy that entailed in excess of 5 billion dollars.

Since the discovery of fire more than half a million years ago, humankind has learned how to transform and make use of the Earth’s energy. For centuries, Man has been drilling into the planet to extract oil, gas and coal from the bowels of the Earth; however, these forms of fossil energy, the millenary remains of plant species that captured their energy from the Sun, are today on the verge of extinction. Is it possible to harness the tremendous amount of geothermal energy stored in the depths of the Earth’s crust for our benefit?

Fig 1. Geothermal source schematic. Source: DOE/EIA

Geothermal energy is the energy that can be obtained by exploiting the heat from within the Earth. There is evidence showing that it will be possible to produce more than 8 percent of the world’s electrical power using geothermal resources, thereby serving 17 percent of the planet’s population. In countries like Iceland, home of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, 90 percent of all homes are equipped with geothermal heating systems. This kind of energy is cheap, dependable and sustainable, and its main advantage is that it does not depend on the weather, coupled with its ability to operate non-stop every day throughout the year. However, geothermal energy exploitation has historically been limited to areas located in close proximity to the tectonic plates, where the Earth’s crust is weak, densely fractured and characterized by intense seismic activity.

Fig 2. Tectonic plate boundaries

Geothermal energy can be turned into electricity for consumption or direct use as a source of heat for thermal processes or air conditioning. However, there is still a lot of room for improvement in terms of the efficiency of conversion processes, involving both the utilization of lower temperature cycles and drilling wells whose depths surpass the current limit (approximately three kilometers). As a product of the progress anticipated in this field, many countries, primarily those located in Africa, Latin America and the Pacific, could eventually meet all of their energy needs.

Fig. 3. Geothermal fluid applications

It is indeed possible for us to meet global energy demand through renewable resources that do not have an impact on the environment. Over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, human beings have demonstrated the ability to apply their ingenuity in transforming the face of the planet Earth to their advantage. The next step is to harness the energy from the Sun, the wind and the Earth so that our grandchildren may have the energy resources needed to keep moving forward in their understanding of the Universe, and thereby continue to contribute to the many human wonders manifested since the birth of mankind.

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This entry was posted in Cambio Climático.

One Response to Geothermal Power, the energy of the depths

  1. Claretta Hyneman says:

    There are criticisms of geothermal energy tapping which prevent its being implemented on the large scale which it should be. Critics say that study and research to find a resourceful area is too costly and takes up too much time. Then there is more great expense needed to build a geothermal power plant, and there is no promise of the plant turning a profit. Some geothermal sites, once tapped, might be found to not produce a large enough amount of steam for the power plant to be viable or reliable. And we hear from the environmentalists who worry that bringing up magma can bring up potentially harmful materials along with it.”"

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