Geothermal Energy: Renewables' Poor Cousin
Never mind all the talk about biofuels, cellulosic ethanol and other hoped for alternative energy sources. Unbeknownst to most, there is already a widely available source of renewable energy that could readily be harnessed and offer tremendous benefits. At least that's the argument being advanced by Jefferson Tester, a professor of chemical engineering at MIT, who discussed the potential of geothermal energy to solve our energy needs in a recent lecture (available as a free video, which we highly recommend you check out).
Solar and wind power, he believes, will likely not have much of an impact on meeting our energy demands over the next 2 decades. Geothermal energy, on the other hand, has already proven itself to be a viable, sustainable energy source over the last 30 years and is widely found in several areas of the world close to the surface (Yellowstone's geysers, for example). In some of these regions, Tester explains that "instead of mining materials from the ground, we're mining heat." The trick then is "to replicate what nature has done" in all the areas that lack hot springs.Tester and his colleagues have worked to demonstrate the potential of these enhanced/engineered geothermal systems (EEGS) at several locations around the world over the span of the last few years. Drilling wells down deep enough to reach hot rock (5 km or more), they circulated water into these heat reservoirs to warm it up enough so it could generate electric power. As we've seen before, the way this works is that a heat-exchanger system is set up between the rock and the wells, which helps produce a vast amount of steam and hot water that powers up electric generators on the surface.
With the right amount of funding by the government, which Tester estimates at $600-800 million (less than the cost of a single clean coal plant), EEGS could become major players by 2050 and start supplying energy at the level needed to exert a significant impact. As things stand, "geothermal has no money in the budget," according to Tester (you can thank this administration's budget priorities for that).
With China leading the way, one can only hope that it'll just be a matter of time (see: next administration) before we seriously start tapping into this large reservoir of renewable energy. Granted, as Tester's report points out, if geothermal energy were "going to be anything more than a minor curiosity," we'd need to supply energy at a fairly high level (at 100 thousand MW, not a done deal yet) and show that its benefits outweigh those of other considered renewable energy sources. We can start by pushing for its wider implementation now.
See also: ::Reyka: Geothermal Powered Vodka