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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Why Is The World Still Ignoring Geothermal Energy?

  • Geothermal is available year-round, is not a variable renewable energy like wind or solar (which are dependent on the weather) and already exists in many locations in a commercial capacity.
  • One of the biggest challenges facing the scalability of geothermal plants is cost.
  • In Italy, a team of scientists has proposed repurposing old oil and gas wells, which already are dub deep into the heat of the Earth, as geothermal energy plants.
Geothermal Energy

As the world begins to accept the urgency of mitigating and adapting to climate change, many nations around the globe are starting to work toward a clean energy transition in more tangible and ambitious ways than ever before. The transition can’t come fast enough. This August the UN issued a “code red for humanity” accompanying a report that showed that not only have humans already irreversibly altered the climate, but the window for avoiding even more damage and the worst effects of climate change is also rapidly closing. So we know what the goal is -- decarbonization -- but what exactly will it take to get there? 

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has put together a scenario that shows one potential answer to that exact question. Their Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS) is “a ‘well below 2 °C’ pathway [that] represents a gateway to the outcomes targeted by the Paris Agreement.” This refers to the goal of limiting global average temperatures from rising more than 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial averages in order to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. The SDS is a comprehensive scenario which lays out feasible pathways for growth for a wide range of low-emissions forms of energy production. 

One of those low impact, low-carbon alternatives is geothermal energy, which sources energy from the heat of the Earth’s core. Geothermal is available year-round, is not a variable renewable energy like wind or solar (which are dependent on the weather) and already exists in many locations in a commercial capacity. Plus, the potential for scaling geothermal energy is enormous. According to figures from the United States’ Department of Energy, as yet untapped in-country geothermal resources could supply as much as 10 percent of current domestic energy needs. 

In order to fit with the SDS projection, geothermal energy would have to grow at a rate of 10% each year. In reality, not only is geothermal’s actual current growth rate far less than 10%, it’s actually been shrinking. “Geothermal electricity generation increased by an estimated 3% in 2019, below the average growth of the five previous years'' the IEA reports

Why is a proven technology with such promising energy transition potential on the decline when we need it most? The primary reason is that developing new geothermal plants is expensive. “To grow as a national solution, geothermal must overcome significant technical and non-technical barriers in order to reduce cost and risk,” says the introduction to a 2019 U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) report — GeoVision: Harnessing the Heat Beneath Our Feet. “The subsurface exploration required for geothermal energy is foremost among these barriers, given the expense, complexity, and risk of such activities.”

But advocates of geothermal energy see an extremely simple solution to this barrier to entry: redirect some of that money that is still going toward subsidies for fossil fuels. Geothermal may be expensive upfront, but climate change will be much costlier. What’s more, there are many scientists and researchers, working in both public and private capacities, who are making great strides to advance geothermal technology and adapt it to be both more adaptable and more scalable. 

In Italy, a team of scientists has proposed repurposing old oil and gas wells, which already are dub deep into the heat of the Earth, as geothermal energy plants as a way of lowering costs and taking advantage of existing infrastructure. There have also been enormous advances in the field of enhanced geothermal systems (EGS). “Historically, in order to provide geothermal energy, sites had to have three things: heat, water, and permeability. But for EGS, new geothermal fields can exist in the absence of underground water reservoirs,” explains the Climate Reality Project. “In EGS, you drill down into the Earth’s crust and fracture a hot rock formation. Water is injected into the wells, heated by the rock, and returned back to the surface. The steam is then used to power a turbine or generator, and any excess water collected is sent back into the Earth to be reused.”

Thanks to EGS, geothermal is no longer just for Icelanders. It’s possible at a commercial scale nearly anywhere on Earth. If policymakers and energy industry leaders can be convinced to get behind geothermal energy in earnest, it could be a gamechanger in the fight against climate change. In fact, depending on who you ask, geothermal is not just a good alternative, it’s an absolute imperative for a decarbonized world.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com


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  • DoRight Deikins on October 17 2021 said:
    Yes, geothermal in actuality could supply one hundred percent of the world's base load. The author failed to mention many of the risks involved, or the possible rewards in mining the deep earth. Talk about green house gases, the SO combinations have always been a problem with geothermal energy. These can be scrubbed, though at a greatly reduced efficiency to the final result. Radon and other radioactive gases/substances present problems. Fracturing of sub-surface structures always lead to interesting problems, including geological subsidence and contamination of sub-surface reservoirs. On the other hand, many valuable minerals could be removed from the heated stream. And on the other, other hand (to quote Tevye) they often end up in brine pools that eventually contaminate surface waters. But all in all, it is probably the ultimate solution with the least risk.

    Note that 'dub deep' (used twice) is not English (o español).
  • john tucker on October 18 2021 said:
    I know someone who installed a geothermal heating system for hbis large housse in western Maryland, several years ago. He hates it. Even with gas as high as it is now, he wishes he had a gas system.....much cheaper, simpler, and more reliable .....
  • Gregory MELLOTT on October 26 2021 said:
    One might well consider that there is a serious amount of natural fracking around volcanoes. Plus the heat source is likely much closer to the surface and much more concentrated in its intensity.'
    To deal with the corrosiveness of the impure water cycled through the system. One might well consider using a carbon composite lining on the plumbing. High heat is also not a problem. With care one might well slip a liner inside a pipe by simply milling the outside the the ID of the receiving pipe and put a pulling stretch on it to reduce its diameter a bit to slip it in. Milling the ends so they meet and smoothly seal with a tad of stretch and/or compression should keep the metal pipe safe from corrosion.
    Binary systems simply can recycle the heated fluid so removing impurities is not required. It uses a heat exchanger to transfer it to a purer water, or where a source is cooler to a refrigerant gas to run a turbine.
    I have read that gold actually naturally separates from magma where there is a gas pocket in it. Likely due to arsenic dropping its carrying of it there. How well this may make possible extracting of gold or other impurities, I can't say. Though, likely the source has the most effect on what is there to note.

    Tucker might wish to note that the type of geothermal he is talking about is a very shallow system that acts more like a temperature stabilizer over the year than a significant heat source. As it is used to round up heat in cooler seasons and coolness in hot seasons.

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