I used the term “fracking” to provoke reactions out of anyone who read this article. What I am really talking about is drilling into a volcanic system to inject water so that you get steam to drive a power plant. Or in other terms, your garden variety geothermal plant, such as those Iceland is filled with.
Some years ago I had the honor of leading an evaluation project for such a plant. That project was later scrapped for various reasons. What I learnt during that time has made me dither on if geothermal energy production is a good idea or not.
A short while ago I got my interest back in geothermal energy and I now have the option of becoming involved in such a project again. This made me start to pick over what I know to decide if it is a good idea, and if it is something I would like to become involved in again. And, for me there is no better way to come to grips with things than to write it down.
Disclaimer: I am generally in favor of geothermal energy and I have a vested interest in its future, you be the judge if I represent things correctly. One thing is for sure, I will strive to give the issue as unbiased representation as possible.
I will go through the benefits, the dangers involved, the technology itself and finish with the place I find to be the most suitable to construct large scale geothermal power plants in.
Geothermal energy requirements
To build a geothermal power plant you need two things, one is a dormant or active volcanic system that has places where there is readily available hot areas close to the surface. This is often, but not always, evident as hotsprings or fumaroles happily steaming.
The simplest way to harvest free geothermal energy is to diverge a hotspring to heat houses, or to cap a fumarole to catch the steam for heating. This has been done for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
But if you wish to build a larger geothermal power plant you need ready access to clean water in large amounts. Otherwise you will not have the necessary water to inject into the wells that you have drilled.
Among the industrialized countries the US has a little bit of Geothermal Power Plants, but could really do a lot more of it. Fracking the living daylights out of Yellowstone could create enough electricity to drive half of the US. It is though not advisable, not because of any dangers, instead it would be a stupid idea since it would destroy the cultural and geological idea of the national park. Instead there are other much better places to do it at.
Italy does it, but they could do a lot more of it. Campi Flegrei and Vesuvius would be good options to increase the energy harvest out of. Japan is good at using the potential for geothermal plants, but could also increase the harvest several times around.
The bright and shining star of geothermal energy is Iceland. Due to the numerous hydrothermal and geothermal power plants on this island nation it is self sufficient on energy without any hydrocarbon sources, and it has the lowest electricity price on the planet not caused by state subsidies.
The Icelanders have done it for decades and are by far technology leaders in the field, and have done this by drilling into active volcanic systems without causing any dangerous accidents.
Geothermal energy and the developing countries
Energy is the most powerful and essential commodity known to mankind. Readily available energy sources have transformed many developing countries into prospering countries, or even super rich countries like Saudi Arabia.
So far these energy revolutions have been based on hydrocarbons like oil or coal. These are finite sources that will dwindle returning these countries back into poverty unless the monetary gain has been reinvested wisely.
Norway when it found oil was almost dirt poor, but it has collected its oil income into a massive oil fund to safeguard the future. Saudi Arabia on the other hand uses it to support things that should never have been supported (let us leave the politics at that), and will have almost nothing as the oil run out.
Then we have the problem with hydrocarbons causing a lot of pollution and being the premier source of climate change.
Geothermal energy on the other hand is almost limitless and will not dwindle in the foreseeable geologic future. It is also the cleanest of all known means to produce energy (I will get back to this).
To put geothermal energy reserves into perspective it suffices to say that the possible gainable energy is several times larger than the known hydrocarbon energy reserves. Most of it is to be found in generally poor areas and countries like the Central Americas, The Andean mountain chain, The Philippines and Malaysia. In these areas and countries comparatively little or no geothermal energy is harvested today.
Building a geothermal power plant is cheap when compared to oil, coal, nuclear, solar or wind power energy plants. And the cost of the “fuel” itself is totally free of charge.
As such it is a good commodity to invest money into production. Most developing countries are plagued with high energy prices and unstable electricity production. This severely hinders industrial development and scares off foreign investments.
Increasing electricity production to lower the prices would induce increased investments into industry and lead to increased prosperity, while at the same time it would lower the cost of electricity for the general population.
It would also give the geothermaly rich countries the ability to export electricity to neighboring countries at competitive prices.
Electricity does though have a distinct drawback to hydrocarbons, it does not readily store well and it is almost impossible to export over larger distances. But, currently there is a drive towards utilizing hydrogen as a fuel for cars. And a country that has almost limitless cheap electricity can produce hydrogen through electrolytic conversion and export hydrogen to the industrialized energy starved areas like Europe, The US, and China.
Local energy development versus energy colonialism
Since most developing countries lack the know-how and expertise to build and maintain these power plants they suffer the risk that it will be the large power companies of the world that will build these power plants.
In my opinion it would be far more advisable if the developing countries owned the rights and leased them out to companies that have the know-how and expertise. And surprisingly enough the giants in the field are the Icelandic power companies together with their crafty oil cousins in Norway and these companies are willing to perform cooperation projects together with local authorities and land owners.
There is also an ever increasing will from agencies like the International Monetary Fund, SIDA and other development agencies to help fund projects like this.
The main problem with geothermal energy in the developing world is the lack of knowledge locally and the lack of readily available information on the subject.
In the next part I will get back to the dangers of geothermal energy extraction, both real and those perceived by the general audience due to lack of information.