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9.5: Geothermal Power

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  • Geothermal energy uses heat from the Earth's internal geologic processes in order to produce electricity or provide heating. The subsurface temperature of the Earth provides an endless energy resource. One source of geothermal energy is steam. Groundwater percolates down through cracks in the subsurface rocks until it reaches rocks heated by underlying magma, and the heat converts the water to steam. Sometimes this steam makes its way back to the surface in the form of a geyser or hot spring. Wells can be dug to tap the steam reservoir and bring it to the surface, to drive generating turbines and produce electricity (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)a). Hot water can be circulated to heat buildings. Regions near tectonic plate boundaries have the best potential for geothermal activity.

    Screenshot (60).pngFigure \(\PageIndex{1}\): a) Installing a Geothermal Pipe System Drilling to install geothermal ground source pipe system. Source: Office of Sustainability. b) Electricity generation at a moderate-temperature hydrothermal system. The geothermal water is used to boil a second fluid (isobutane in this example) whose vapor then drives a turbine generator. The wastewater is injected back into the subsurface. Source: USGS.

    5.5.1: Environmental Impacts of Geothermal Energy

    The environmental impact of geothermal energy depends on how it is being used. Direct use and heating applications have almost no negative impact on the environment. Geothermally heated water can release dissolved gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, although these are usually in very small quantities when compared to those released from fossil fuel plants. In addition, geothermal plants use scrubber systems to clean the air of hydrogen sulfide that is naturally found in the steam and hot water. They emit 97 % less acid rain-causing sulfur compounds than are emitted by fossil fuel plants.

    Even though geothermal energy is renewable, not every plant built to capture this energy will be able to operate indefinitely because the energy relies on groundwater recharge. If the heated water is used faster than the recharge rate of groundwater, the plant will eventually run out of water. The Geysers in California started experiencing this and operators responded by injecting municipal wastewater into the ground to replenish the supply. Also, patterns of geothermal activity in the Earth’s crust naturally shift over time and an area that produces hot groundwater now may not always so do. The water of many hot springs is laced with salts and minerals that corrode equipment, shorten the lifetime of plants and increase maintenance costs.

    Electrical power is restricted to regions where energy can be tapped from naturally heated groundwater but most areas of the world are not rich in naturally heated groundwater. Engineers are trying to overcome this by drilling deeply into dry rock, fracture the rock and pump in cold water which becomes heated and drawn up through an outlet well and used to generate power. However, this approach is said to trigger minor earthquakes.

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