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Debate: Geothermal energy

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Should geothermal energy be a major part of plans to combat global warming?

Background and context

Geothermal power is energy generated by heat stored beneath the Earth's surface, or the collection of absorbed heat derived from underground in the atmosphere and oceans. Prince Piero Ginori Conti tested the first geothermal generator on 4 July 1904, at the Larderello dry steam field in Italy. The largest group of geothermal power plants in the world is located in The Geysers, a geothermal field in California. As of 2007, geothermal power supplies less than 1% of the world's energy.

Geothermal energy has become the subject of significant debate in recent years due to its possible role as a major alternative energy resource and solution to global warming. Governments are uncertain as to whether they should include geothermal as a major component of their energy and global warming plans and whether they should provide any subsidies to geothermal energy. Many questions must be answered in this debate in order for any such determinations to be made. These questions include: Is geothermal energy helpful in the fight against global warming? Does it emit 0 emissions in the process of transforming geothermal energy into electricity? What about during the process of drilling to tap into geothermal energy or in the process of building geothermal plants and infrastructures? Aside from global warming, does geothermal energy preserve the environment? Is drilling invasive and potentially harmful? Is geothermal energy a long-term "renewable" energy resource? Is it sustainable and economically viable? Is it available with current technologies and scalable in such a way that it can make a significant energy contribution and impact on global warming? Is geothermal a truly abundant and widely available source of energy? Or, are there a limited number of areas available for geothermal development? Does geothermal supply a consistent and reliable source of energy? Can it help cut foreign dependencies on fossil fuels? These questions need to be fully examined before determining the place of geothermal energy in any global warming plan.

See Wikipedia's article on geothermal energy for more background.

Contents

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Global warming: Can geothermal energy help combat global warming?

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Yes

  • Geothermal energy emits no greenhouse gases; can cut emissions Geothermal energy conversion involves using heat energy from the earth to boil water and drive turbines to generate electric currents. This process of energy conversion emits no greenhouse gases, unlike the burning of fossil fuels (which emits greenhouse gases) to drive turbines and generate an electric currents.


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No

  • Geothermal energy harmfully releases heat into atmosphere Geothermal energy relies on geothermal heat. It transfers that heat to the surface to boil water and generate electricity. Much of the heat is released into the atmosphere through steam. The process releases almost twice as much heat into the atmosphere as nuclear plants. The concern is that the release of this heat will contribute to global warming, particularly if deployed on a large scale.
  • Geothermal energy cannot scale to significantly cut emissions. In order for geothermal energy to have any significant impact on emissions and global warming, it would have to be able to scale massively and economically. Yet, there are many reasons to believe that geothermal energy cannot scale in this way. See the "economics" section below.


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Ecosystems: Is geothermal energy good for ecosystems?

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Yes

  • Geothermal energy does not cause acid rain like fossil fuels. Geothermal energy releases 97% less acid rain than a fossil fuel plant.[1]
  • Geothermal energy does not release any waste byproduct. Geothermal does not produce any waste byproduct, such as nuclear radioactive waste or the biomass waste from producing biofuels.
  • Geothermal drilling can be regulated to avoid releasing toxins. Geothermal drilling does not inherently release greenhouse gases. This only occurs when poor drilling and extraction practices are implemented. Well-regulated drilling and extraction can ensure that greenhouse gases are not released from the Earth.
  • The environmental benefits of geothermal outweigh the costs Even if geothermal has some environmental costs, these costs are minimal, and must be weighed against the alternative of continuing to rely on fossil fuels, which do far more destruction to the environment. Geothermal is a far more justifiable than using fossil fuels, so should be pursued.


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No

  • Geothermal wastewater contains toxic chemicals. Hot water from geothermal sources will contain trace amounts of dangerous elements such as mercury, arsenic, antimony, etc. which if disposed of into rivers can render their water unsafe to drink.


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Renewable: Is geothermal a "renewable" resource?

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Yes

  • Geothermal energy is a renewable resource when managed properly. Geothermal is a renewable energy resource. It derives energy from the heat of the earth's core and volcanic-thermal activity. The Earth's core will continue to produce massive amounts of heat for millions of years. Humans can tap this energy by pumping out super-hot water heated thousands of feet inside the earth's crust. This supply of super-hot water will never run out, as long as it is managed properly, allowing it to be sufficiently replenished by rain-water draining back into the earth's crust.


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No

  • Geothermal sites can cool down over time so are not "renewable". Although geothermal sites are capable of providing heat for many decades, eventually specific locations may cool down. It is likely that in these locations, the system was designed too large for the site, since there is only so much energy that can be stored and replenished in a given volume of earth. Some interpret this as meaning a specific geothermal location can undergo depletion, and question whether geothermal energy is truly renewable.


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Economics: Is geothermal energy economical?

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Yes

  • Geothermal energy is "free"; requires no purchase of fuel. Fossil fuels must be purchased, then they can be used as fuels to generate power. Geothermal energy is "free" in the sense that it is simply heat from underneath the ground. This heat does not have to be purchased.
  • The geothermal energy industry creates jobs. Like any new industry, the geothermal industry offers jobs.


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No

  • Many geothermal engines operate at an inefficient low temperature. Geothermal energy operates at a relatively low temperature (compared to steam from boilers), which by the laws of thermodynamics limits the efficiency of the engine.
  • Geothermal energy is often too far from populated areas. The development of geothermal reservoirs is often unfeasible because they are too far from major population centers. This adds to the cost of transmitting electricity, which is higher over long distances.
  • Geothermal drilling can be expensive. It can cost two to three times as much as oil drilling, and current technology limits bore-hole depths to 30,000 ft. A break-through in drilling technology appears necessary to make the various processes economically feasible.
  • The geothermal energy industry DOES NOT create jobs. The only jobs and technology that geothermal exploitation creates are those "taken away" from the oil exploration. It uses exactly the same technology and qualified personnel that the oil industry uses. This is a zero-sum game.
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Stability: Is geothermal a consistent and reliable form of energy?

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Yes

  • Geothermal energy is unaffected by changing weather conditions. Many alternative energy sources are dependent on weather conditions. Wind, solar, and hydroelectric are all affected by weather conditions. Geothermal is not, which makes it a useful and stable alternative.
  • Geothermal power plants work continuously day and night. This makes geothermal energy good for providing base load amounts of electricity. Base-load electricity is what can replace coal and have an major impact on greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Geothermal is unaffected by fuel price and transport instabilities. Because geothermal uses no fuel, it is unaffected by the problems of unstable fuel prices and the possible disruption of the transportation of fuel.
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No

  • Geothermal plants often blow-out. Geothermal energy, by tapping into often volatile geothermal energy, can often result in major blowouts. The fires caused by these blowouts have been known to rage out of control for days.
  • The output of geothermal power plants degrades over time. This can take place in the span of several years or a decade if a field is poorly managed.
  • Weather and frosting can impair geothermal energy production. "Geothermal Heat Pump Problems" - "There could be potential winds and frosting problems related to your heat pump. But that could be avoided by choosing a good location in the first place. The location of the heat pump outdoor has a great impact on its efficiency. Rule is that all outdoor units shouldn't be facing high winds, as they can cause frosting problems. Therefore, try to strategically place a bush or a fence."
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Availability: Is geothermal abundant and widely available?

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Yes

  • No energy source is 100% "available" in all locations. Oil can only be drilled for in certain locations. Coal can only be mined in certain areas. Wind energy and solar energy are ideal only in certain climates. Almost all other energy sources have some kind of locational limitation. It is not unique, therefore, that geothermal energy has certain limitations on where it can be found and exploited.
In the United States, for instance, 100 exajoules of energy are consumed every year. There are 14,000,000 exajoules of geothermal energy in the United States available to meet this demand. That means that there is over 100,000 thousand times the amount of geothermal energy in the United States as the US currently requires for its energy needs. Obviously, geothermal is extremely abundant and, thus, available.


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No

  • Locating geothermal plants next to volcanoes is risky. "Disadvantages Of Geothermal Energy". Clean Energy Ideas - "To extract the heat we have to find certain hot spots within the earths crust, these are very common around volcanoes and fault lines, but who wants to build their power geothermal energy plant next to a volcano?"[2]


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Space heating: Is geothermal a good alternative for space-heating?

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Yes

  • Geothermal maintains superior interior air quality. Oil heat works through combustion, which it uses up oxygen in a house. Geothermal systems heat the house with ambient air, which makes you feel like you are outside when you are inside.


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No

  • Geothermal heat pumps can encounter significant maintenance problems. "Geothermal Heat Pump Problems" - "Common heat pump problems involve low airflow, leeky ducts, incorrect refrigerant charge."
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Social: What are the social impacts of geothermal energy?

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Yes


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No

  • Geothermal energy plants are often very noisy. Geothermal energy operates in a similar way to coal power plants, with steam driving electrical generators. This process involves many moving parts, and is often very noisy. This can be a serious problem for communities where geothermal energy plants are located.


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Aesthetics: What are the aesthetics of geothermal?

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Yes


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No


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Foreign oil: Can geothermal energy help cut foreign oil dependencies?

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Yes


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No

  • Geothermal is not available to all to cut oil dependencies. Geothermal is not available in massive quantities to all countries. It is, therefore, not a consistent means of fighting foreign dependencies on oil.
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Iceland: Does Iceland demonstrate the potential of geothermal energy?

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Yes

  • Geothermal has demonstrated itself in Iceland. In Iceland, almost every home is heated during the winter by geothermal energy. Geothermal provides roughly 54% of Icelands total energy consumption. This demonstrates that geothermal energy is abundant, available for exploitation now, and that it truly has the potential to supply all the energy needs of a society.


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No

  • Iceland is an exceptional case for geothermal energy. Iceland has an extraordinary geothermal environment. The amount of geothermal energy there is much greater than in other countries. The cold weather also makes geothermal energy particularly fitting for heating homes there. Finally, the small size of Iceland's population makes it possible for geothermal to provide a larger portion of the country's energy demands than would otherwise be possible.


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Pro/con sources

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Yes


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No


See also

External links and resources

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