I learned a lot about geothermal energy production through my mini-term to New Zealand. There, geothermal energy is ideal because of New Zealand’s geographic location, which is located near where two tectonic plates meet. Geothermal energy production works via using the heat and thus energy from inside the Earth to make power. This works by pumping geothermal fluid out of the ground, converting the heat into steam, and having this steam go through turbines and turn the turbines so create energy. This is done on a large scale in New Zealand to create electricity, but there is also smaller-scale geothermal energy that people can use to heat their homes. The New Zealand geothermal practices are so successful due to the location near tectonic plates that have heat closer to the Earth’s surface, which means that other locations are much less ideal for geothermal energy production and make this practice less efficient. Geothermal energy production can be quite problematic due to the geothermal fluid itself–prior to the late 1990s, geothermal fluid was dumped into rivers after the fluid was used to create steam. This ended up polluting a lot of rivers and raising the river temperature as well as allowing for harmful, poisonous bacteria and algae to grow in rivers, killing off the wildlife. The Resource Management Act has thus put restrictions on how geothermal fluid is dealt with after the energy production process. Fluid is now pumped back into the ground after the fluid is used, to attempt to recycle the geothermal fluid. This is still quite problematic because the fluid can build up in certain locations and erupt out of the ground. Another problem that occurs is the shifting levels of the ground. When the geothermal fluid is placed back in the ground, this can also contaminate the ground water and thus our crops, since the crops are now interacting with harmful, toxic materials. Pumping the fluid back into the ground can get quite expensive, and the cleanup of the rivers in New Zealand that have been previously destroyed by this practice is extremely expensive. This is definitely not a widely commercialized practice, and I really don’t think it should be (alternatives such as solar and wind power are much better for the environment with fewer negative drawbacks). In terms of long-term sustainability, I don’t see this practice being incredibly sustainable due to the negative environmental drawbacks. However, the fluid can keep being re-used, which is a slight positive when compared to things such as coal burning or fossil fuel usage.
This past month, the United States Department of Energy announced seven projects to advance geothermal energy development across the country. One of the projects will occur right next to us at Union; in Niskayuna, NY. The projects will total approximately $11.4 million and will focus on geothermal energy enhancement through the implementation and research on the benefits and consequences of this renewable energy source.
Geothermal energy is a geographically bound. It cannot be easily implemented in all areas of the country, and is currently solely located in the western states of the U.S. Geothermal energy is basically using heat from the Earth as energy. It uses the warmth of the Earth as steam to heat buildings and homes. The positive aspects of this type of renewable energy source is that it does not produce CO2 emissions, it is sustainable and can work throughout the day or night, and it can be very price competitive if situated in the right area. Cons to geothermal energy include the deterioration of geysers and springs, and also the presence of toxic elements such as arsenic and mercury, which can contribute to health problems.
Currently, American geothermal electricity contributes 3.8 gigawatts of electricity on the grid. The projects implemented will help expand the current systems, and is estimated to contribute 100 GW of currently inaccessible resources. It is also supposed to remove geographical barriers of conventional geothermal resources. The projects will take place in a variety of locations across the country including, Argonne, IL; Stillwater, OK; Albuquerque, NM; Norman, OK; and at the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station.
This is important because one project is occurring in our backyard, at General Electric Company in Niskayuna. This project is research based. It will work on developing and testing new directional drilling orientation sensors that are capable of operating at 300°C for a prolonged period of time (1000 hours). This research will allow measurement while drilling (MWD) at substantially hotter temperatures needed for geothermal drilling than current tools.
Through these projects, the US will hopefully limit the amount of CO2 produced in the atmosphere and create an energy source with an essentially limitless supply of energy for billions of years to come.