In our current climate dilemma, many methods and strategies for producing energy have arisen in the past few years. The crazy thing is that geothermal energy has the potential to be more effective than all of them. And if we’re going to successfully reverse climate change, we’re going to have to make some big changes quickly.
When people talk about ways to help the environment and reverse climate change, we often focus on household tips. Carpooling instead of driving by yourself, turning off lights as you leave a room, and lowering your thermostat by a few degrees in the winter are all good ways to save money and reduce carbon emissions, but to make a lasting change, we’ll need a much more radical and powerful solution.
Those small changes amount to drops in the ocean compared to the damage being done to the environment by large energy companies and the industry at large. According to reporting from the Guardian in 2017, just 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The responsibility and ability to reverse climate change, therefore, is in the hands of the entire energy industry rather than individuals.
This isn’t to say that small, individual actions don’t help the environment in its own way—everyone has a responsibility to be proper stewards of the Earth. But if there is any hope to stop the upwards trajectory of climate change that’s being seen and felt on a global scale—it’s going to take a lot more than using energy efficient light bulbs in one’s home.
Thankfully, clean renewable energy sources are finally making momentum on the global energy stage. Solar and wind energy are the current headliners in the sustainable energy conversation, but there is one significant underdog that should be given more attention: geothermal energy.
What Is Geothermal Energy?
Geothermal energy is the heat generated underneath the earth’s crust. Since the heat is continuously produced inside the Earth, it’s a renewable energy source that can be harnessed both for heating purposes and for generating electricity. It’s one of the few renewable energy sources that can provide clean energy (around one-sixth of the CO₂ output than natural-gas-fueled power plants), as well as an affordable alternative to fossil fuels (around 80 percent less than fossil fuel production).
When compared to other current renewable energy options like solar farms and wind turbines, geothermal energy is much more reliable since the subsurface heat is available anytime. While there are ways to store the energy created via solar and wind energy, it’s still an expensive and unreliable source. Geothermal energy can be harnessed with ease, for less, and in ways that rival both fossil fuels and and other clean energy options currently on the market.
There are several techniques to harness geothermal energy. To get deep enough into the Earth, you need to drill bore holes to reach the fluid pockets; these holes often go more than a mile deep. Depending on the type of steam in the area—dry steam, flash steam, and low-temperature steam—will change how deep engineers drill. Once the plants have drilled far enough, the fluid is put through turbines that are vaporized and used to spin a turbine to create electricity.
According to Meseret Teklemariam Zemedkun, the Energy Programme Manager at the United Nation Environment Programme (UNEP), “Geothermal is hundred percent indigenous, environmentally friendly and a technology that has been under-utilized for too long. It is time to take this technology off the back burner in order to power livelihoods, fuel development and reduce dependence on polluting and unpredictable fossil fuels.”
While installing a home or town with geothermal capabilities requires more time, upfront costs, and extensive home HVAC updates from traditional units, the switch will save household money in the long run, as well as help the environment. And since each unit simply moves heat instead of generating heat, it protects the environment from more fossil fuel emissions.
Geothermal Energy Limitations
So if geothermal energy is a simple solution that could reverse the world’s current climate change trajectory, why hasn’t it become our de facto energy source yet?
In order for countries to harness geothermal energy efficiently and effectively, geothermal plants should often be constructed in specific geographic areas with tectonic hotspots. This isn’t a problem for countries like Iceland, New Zealand, Turkey, Indonesia, Kenya, and El Salvador—which are located in prime seismic zones and geothermal hotspots. But for other countries outside of these continental rift locations, it will be much more difficult to capture that energy. And while there have been several technological advancements that have made harnessing geothermal energy less limited by geography—such as the use of dry steam, flash, and binary geothermal power plants—these hot spots are our best bet for harnessing that energy easily.
Another hurdle geothermal energy needs to overcome is the high upfront costs. Director of the U.S. Department of Energy Susan Hamm said in a Yale study that “The subsurface exploration required for geothermal energy is foremost among these barriers, given the expense, complexity, and risk of such activities.” Because of high initial construction costs, governments and leaders in the energy industry need to find a way to make geothermal energy more attractive to the public upfront while also lowering construction costs.
Perhaps the most difficult hurdle to overcome is the threat of earthquakes due to the drilling needed in those hotspots. While seismic zones are the best option to harness geothermal energy, there is an inherent risk that using high pressure to release the natural gas could cause small earthquakes due to the shifting tectonic plates. In 2017, a 5.4 earthquake in South Korea is thought to have been directly caused by a geothermal plant.
It’s clear that the renewable energy industry still has a ways to go before geothermal is a common substitute for fossil fuel across the world. But at the same time, it’s also clear that geothermal will eventually take off as a leading energy role in the near future. When it takes off on a global scale, however, is still up in the air.