Geothermal electricity is electricity generated from geothermal energy. Technologies in use include dry steam power plants, flash steam power plants and binary cycle power plants. Geothermal electricity generation is currently used in 24 countries, while geothermal heating is in use in 70 countries.
Estimates of the electricity generating potential of geothermal energy vary from 35 to 2,000 GW. Current worldwide installed capacity is 10,715 megawatts (MW), with the largest capacity in the United States (3,086 MW). El Salvador, Kenya, the Philippines, Iceland and Costa Rica generate more than 15 percent of their electricity from geothermal sources.
Geothermal power is considered to be sustainable because the heat extraction is small compared with the Earth's heat content. The life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of geothermal electric plants are on average 45 grams of CO
2 per kilowatt-hour of electricity, or less than 5 percent of that of conventional coal-fired plants.
In the 20th century, demand for electricity led to the consideration of geothermal power as a generating source. Prince Piero Ginori Conti tested the first geothermal power generator on 4 July 1904 in Larderello, Italy. It successfully lit four light bulbs. Later, in 1911, the world's first commercial geothermal power plant was built there. Experimental generators were built in Beppu, Japan and the Geysers, California, in the 1920s, but Italy was the world's only industrial producer of geothermal electricity until 1958.
In 1960, Pacific Gas and Electric began operation of the first successful geothermal electric power plant in the United States at The Geysers in California. The original turbine lasted for more than 30 years and produced 11 MW net power.
The binary cycle power plant was first demonstrated in 1967 in Russia and later introduced to the USA in 1981, following the 1970s energy crisis and significant changes in regulatory policies. This technology allows the use of much lower temperature resources than were previously recoverable. In 2006, a binary cycle plant in Chena Hot Springs, Alaska, came on-line, producing electricity from a record low fluid temperature of 57°C (135°F).
Geothermal electric plants have until recently been built exclusively where high temperature geothermal resources are available near the surface. The development of binary cycle power plants and improvements in drilling and extraction technology may enable enhanced geothermal systems over a much greater geographical range. Demonstration projects are operational in Landau-Pfalz, Germany, and Soultz-sous-Forêts, France, while an earlier effort in Basel, Switzerland was shut down after it triggered earthquakes. Other demonstration projects are under construction in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.
The thermal efficiency of geothermal electric plants is low, around 7–10%, because geothermal fluids are at a low temperature compared with steam from boilers. By the laws of thermodynamics this low temperature limits the efficiency of heat engines in extracting useful energy during the generation of electricity. Exhaust heat is wasted, unless it can be used directly and locally, for example in greenhouses, timber mills, and district heating. The efficiency of the system does not affect operational costs as it would for a coal or other fossil fuel plant, but it does factor into the viability of the plant. In order to produce more energy than the pumps consume, electricity generation requires high temperature geothermal fields and specialized heat cycles. Because geothermal power does not rely on variable sources of energy, unlike, for example, wind or solar, its capacity factor can be quite large – up to 96% has been demonstrated. However the global average capacity factor was 74.5% in 2008, according to the IPCC.
The earth’s heat content is about 1031 joules. This heat naturally flows to the surface by conduction at a rate of 44.2 terawatts (TW) and is replenished by radioactive decay at a rate of 30 TW. These power rates are more than double humanity’s current energy consumption from primary sources, but most of this power is too diffuse (approximately 0.1 W/m2 on average) to be recoverable. The Earth's crust effectively acts as a thick insulating blanket which must be pierced by fluid conduits (of magma, water or other) to release the heat underneath.
Electricity generation requires high temperature resources that can only come from deep underground. The heat must be carried to the surface by fluid circulation, either through magma conduits, hot springs, hydrothermal circulation, oil wells, drilled water wells, or a combination of these. This circulation sometimes exists naturally where the crust is thin: magma conduits bring heat close to the surface, and hot springs bring the heat to the surface. If no hot spring is available, a well must be drilled into a hot aquifer. Away from tectonic plate boundaries the geothermal gradient is 25–30 °C per kilometre (km) of depth in most of the world, and wells would have to be several kilometres deep to permit electricity generation. The quantity and quality of recoverable resources improves with drilling depth and proximity to tectonic plate boundaries.
In ground that is hot but dry, or where water pressure is inadequate, injected fluid can stimulate production. Developers bore two holes into a candidate site, and fracture the rock between them with explosives or high pressure water. Then they pump water or liquefied carbon dioxide down one borehole, and it comes up the other borehole as a gas. This approach is called hot dry rock geothermal energy in Europe, or enhanced geothermal systems in North America. Much greater potential may be available from this approach than from conventional tapping of natural aquifers.
Estimates of the electricity generating potential of geothermal energy vary from 35 to 2000 GW depending on the scale of investments. This does not include non-electric heat recovered by co-generation, geothermal heat pumps and other direct use. A 2006 report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), that included the potential of enhanced geothermal systems, estimated that investing 1 billion US dollars in research and development over 15 years would allow the creation of 100 GW of electrical generating capacity by 2050 in the United States alone. The MIT report estimated that over 200 zettajoules (ZJ) would be extractable, with the potential to increase this to over 2,000 ZJ with technology improvements – sufficient to provide all the world's present energy needs for several millennia.
At present, geothermal wells are rarely more than 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) deep. Upper estimates of geothermal resources assume wells as deep as 10 kilometres (6.2 mi). Drilling near this depth is now possible in the petroleum industry, although it is an expensive process. The deepest research well in the world, the Kola superdeep borehole, is 12.3 km (7.6 mi) deep. This record has recently been imitated by commercial oil wells, such as Exxon's Z-12 well in the Chayvo field, Sakhalin. Wells drilled to depths greater than 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) generally incur drilling costs in the tens of millions of dollars. The technological challenges are to drill wide bores at low cost and to break larger volumes of rock.
Geothermal power is considered to be sustainable because the heat extraction is small compared to the Earth's heat content, but extraction must still be monitored to avoid local depletion. Although geothermal sites are capable of providing heat for many decades, individual wells may cool down or run out of water. The three oldest sites, at Larderello, Wairakei, and the Geysers have all reduced production from their peaks. It is not clear whether these plants extracted energy faster than it was replenished from greater depths, or whether the aquifers supplying them are being depleted. If production is reduced, and water is reinjected, these wells could theoretically recover their full potential. Such mitigation strategies have already been implemented at some sites. The long-term sustainability of geothermal energy has been demonstrated at the Lardarello field in Italy since 1913, at the Wairakei field in New Zealand since 1958, and at The Geysers field in California since 1960.
Geothermal power stations are similar to other steam turbine thermal power stations – heat from a fuel source (in geothermal's case, the earth's core) is used to heat water or another working fluid. The working fluid is then used to turn a turbine of a generator, thereby producing electricity. The fluid is then cooled and returned to the heat source.
Dry steam plants are the simplest and oldest design. They directly use geothermal steam of 150°C or greater to turn turbines.
Flash steam plants pull deep, high-pressure hot water into lower-pressure tanks and use the resulting flashed steam to drive turbines. They require fluid temperatures of at least 180°C, usually more. This is the most common type of plant in operation today.
Binary cycle power plants are the most recent development, and can accept fluid temperatures as low as 57°C. The moderately hot geothermal water is passed by a secondary fluid with a much lower boiling point than water. This causes the secondary fluid to flash vaporize, which then drives the turbines. This is the most common type of geothermal electricity plant being constructed today. Both Organic Rankine and Kalina cycles are used. The thermal efficiency of this type plant is typically about 10–13%.
The International Geothermal Association (IGA) has reported that 10,715 megawatts (MW) of geothermal power in 24 countries is online, which is expected to generate 67,246 GWh of electricity in 2010. This represents a 20% increase in geothermal power online capacity since 2005. IGA projects this will grow to 18,500 MW by 2015, due to the large number of projects presently under consideration, often in areas previously assumed to have little exploitable resource.
In 2010, the United States led the world in geothermal electricity production with 3,086 MW of installed capacity from 77 power plants; the largest group of geothermal power plants in the world is located at The Geysers, a geothermal field in California. The Philippines follows the US as the second highest producer of geothermal power in the world, with 1,904 MW of capacity online; geothermal power makes up approximately 27% of the country's electricity generation.
Al Gore said in The Climate Project Asia Pacific Summit that Indonesia could become a super power country in electricity production from geothermal energy. India has announced a plan to develop the country's first geothermal power facility in Chhattisgarh.
Canada is the only major country on the Pacific Ring of Fire which has not yet developed geothermal power. The region of greatest potential is the Canadian Cordillera, stretching from British Columbia to the Yukon, where estimates of generating output have ranged from 1,550 MW to 5,000 MW.
Chevron Corporation is the world's leading geothermal producer with about 1,300 MW from two plants in Indonesia and two in the Phillippines.
The largest group of geothermal power plants in the world is located at The Geysers, a geothermal field in California, United States. As of 2004, five countries (El Salvador, Kenya, the Philippines, Iceland, and Costa Rica) generate more than 15% of their electricity from geothermal sources.
Geothermal electricity is generated in the 24 countries listed in the table below. During 2005, contracts were placed for an additional 500 MW of electrical capacity in the United States, while there were also plants under construction in 11 other countries. Enhanced geothermal systems that are several kilometres in depth are operational in France and Germany and are being developed or evaluated in at least four other countries.
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Fluids drawn from the deep earth carry a mixture of gases, notably carbon dioxide (CO
2), hydrogen sulfide (H
2S), methane (CH
4), and ammonia (NH
3). These pollutants contribute to global warming, acid rain, and noxious smells if released.
Existing geothermal electric plants, that fall within the 50th percentile of all total life cycle emissions studies reviewed by the IPCC, produce on average 45 kg of CO
2 equivalent emissions per megawatt-hour of generated electricity (kg CO
2eq/MW·h). For comparison, a coal-fired power plant emits 1,001 kg of CO
2 per megawatt-hour when not coupled with carbon capture and storage (CCS).
Plants that experience high levels of acids and volatile chemicals are usually equipped with emission-control systems to reduce the exhaust. Geothermal plants could theoretically inject these gases back into the earth, as a form of carbon capture and storage.
In addition to dissolved gases, hot water from geothermal sources may hold in solution trace amounts of toxic chemicals, such as mercury, arsenic, boron, antimony, and salt. These chemicals come out of solution as the water cools, and can cause environmental damage if released. The modern practice of injecting geothermal fluids back into the Earth to stimulate production has the side benefit of reducing this environmental risk.
Plant construction can adversely affect land stability. Subsidence has occurred in the Wairakei field in New Zealand. Enhanced geothermal systems can trigger earthquakes as part of hydraulic fracturing. The project in Basel, Switzerland was suspended because more than 10,000 seismic events measuring up to 3.4 on the Richter Scale occurred over the first 6 days of water injection. The risk of geothermal drilling leading to uplift has been experienced in Staufen im Breisgau.
Geothermal has minimal land and freshwater requirements. Geothermal plants use 404 square meters per GW·h versus 3,632 and 1,335 square meters for coal facilities and wind farms respectively. They use 20 litres of freshwater per MW·h versus over 1000 litres per MW·h for nuclear, coal, or oil.
Geothermal power plants can also disrupt the natural cycles of geysers. For example, the Beowawe, Nevada geysers stopped erupting due to the development of the dual-flash plant.
Geothermal power requires no fuel; it is therefore immune to fuel cost fluctuations. However, capital costs tend to be high. Drilling accounts for over half the costs, and exploration of deep resources entails significant risks. A typical well doublet in Nevada can support 4.5 megawatts (MW) of electricity generation and costs about $10 million to drill, with a 20% failure rate. In total, electrical plant construction and well drilling costs about 2–5 million € per MW of electrical capacity, while the levelised energy cost is 0.04–0.10 € per kW·h. Enhanced geothermal systems tend to be on the high side of these ranges, with capital costs above $4 million per MW and levelized costs above $0.054 per kW·h in 2007.
Geothermal power is highly scalable: a small power plant can supply a rural village, though initial capital costs can be high.