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Classical Geothermal energy is widely regarded as describing the process of using
hot water or steam extracted from geothermal reservoirs in the earth's crust, created
by upward convection and conduction of heat from the Earth’s mantle and core, that
can be used for geothermal heat pumps, water heating, or electricity generation.
Hot Dry Rock (HDR) describes the process of extracting heat from deep crystalline
rock heated by the decay of radioactive elements including uranium, thorium, and
potassium isotopes in effect - nature's nuclear power plant.
In recognition of the recent discovery that these target rocks aren't dry the newer term
Hot Rock Energy is beginning to gain dominance.
Baseload and peaking capability: Geothermal power-plants can operate 24
hours a day, 365 days a year and are unaffected by climatic factors.
Low CO2 emissions: Binary geothermal power plants could be zero-emission
(no CO2 or oxides of nitrogen and sulphur).
High availability factors: Binary power plants can usually produce electricity
for 95% of the time.
Low environmental impacts: No acid rain, mine spoils, open pits, oil spills,
radioactive wastes, or damming of rivers. Binary power plants occupy small
land areas.
Increased energy security: Geothermal is an indigenous supply of energy,
providing energy supply and pricing security.
Deep inside the Earth lies hot water and steam that can be used to heat our homes and businesses and
generate electricity cleanly and efficiently. It's called geothermal energy -- from the Greek words geo,
or "earth," and therme, meaning "heat."
There is plenty of heat in the center of the Earth. The deeper you dig, the hotter it gets. The core, about
4,000 miles (6,437 kilometers) beneath the surface, can reach temperatures of 7,600 degrees
Fahrenheit (4,204 degrees Celsius). Part of that heat is left over from the Earth's formation, about 4
billion years ago. The rest comes from the constant decay of radioactive isotopes inside the Earth.
The heat inside the Earth is intense enough to melt rocks. Those molten rocks are known as magma.
Because magma is less dense than the rocks surrounding it, it rises to the surface. Sometimes magma
escapes through cracks in the Earth's crust, erupting out of volcanoes as part of lava. But most of the
time magma stays beneath the surface, heating surrounding rocks and the water that has become
trapped within those rocks. Sometimes that water escapes through cracks in the Earth to form pools of
hot water (hot springs) or bursts of hot water and steam (geysers). The rest of the heated water remains
in pools under the Earth's surface, called geothermal reservoirs.
How it works
Direct geothermal energy. In areas where hot springs or geothermal reservoirs are near the Earth's
surface, hot water can be piped in directly to heat homes or office buildings. Geothermal water is
pumped through a heat exchanger, which transfers the heat from the water into the building's heating
system. The used water is injected back down a well into the reservoir to be reheated and used again.
Geothermal heat pump. A few feet under the ground, the soil or water remain a constant 50 to 60
degrees Fahrenheit (10-15 degrees Celsius) year-round. Just that little bit of warmth can be used to
heat or cool homes and offices. Fluid circulates through a series of pipes (called a loop) under the
ground or beneath the water of a pond or lake and into a building. An electric compressor and heat
exchanger pull the heat from the pipes and send it via a duct system throughout the building. In the
summer the process is reversed. The pipes draw heat away from the house and carry it to the ground or
water outside, where it is absorbed.
Geothermal power plant. Hot water and steam from deep underground can be piped up through
underground wells and used to generate electricity in a power plant. Three different types of geothermal
power plants exist:
Dry steam plants. Hot steam is piped directly from geothermal reservoirs into generators in
the power plant. The steam spins turbines, which generate electricity.
Flash steam plants. Water that's between 300 and 700 degrees Fahrenheit (148 and 371
degrees Celsius) is brought up through a well. Some of the water turns to steam, which drives the
turbines. When the steam cools it condenses back into water and is returned to the ground.
Binary cycle plants. Moderately hot geothermal water is passed through a heat exchanger,
where its heat is transferred to a liquid (such as isobutene) that boils at a lower temperature than water.
When that fluid is heated it turns to steam, which spins the turbines.
we're not using nearly as much geothermal energy as is available. That has to do with the limited
geographic availability of geothermal energy, and the difficulty and expense of drilling down far enough
to reach that energy. More advanced techniques being developed could allow for deeper drilling,
potentially bringing geothermal energy to more people in more places.
For right now, geothermal heat pumps are the most viable option. They can be used just about
anywhere in the world because the temperature beneath the ground always remains constant.
How Does Geothermal Compare to
Other Energy Sources?
A drilling rig at the Newberry crater near LaPine, Ore., is accessing the heat below the Earth's surface.
Experts say geothermal energy is cleaner, more efficient, and more cost-effective than burning fossil
fuels, and it can reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
Geothermal energy is clean because it can be generated without burning fossil fuels. Geothermal plants
release a fraction of the carbon dioxide produced by fossil fuel plants, and they create very little nitrous
oxide or sulfur gases [source: U.S. Department of Energy]. Reykjavik, Iceland, which heats 95 percent
of its buildings using geothermal energy, is considered one of the cleanest cities in the world [source:
International Geological Congress Oslo].
Because the energy is generated right near the plant, it saves on processing and transportation costs
compared to other types of fuel. Geothermal plants are also considered to be more reliable than coal or
nuclear plants because they can run consistently, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
The initial costs of geothermal energy are high -- wells can cost $1 to $4 million each to drill, and
installation of a home geothermal pump system can run as much as $30,000 [sources: REPP,
Consumer Energy Center]. However, a home geothermal energy pump can cut energy bills by 30 to 40
percent and will pay for itself within 5 to 10 years [source: Consumer Energy Center].
Geothermal energy is considered renewable because the heat is continually replaced. The water that is
removed is put right back into the ground after its heat is used.