History of Geothermal Energy

You might not realize it but there is quite a rich history of geothermal energy. The ability for the earth to produce heat has always been around. People have been utilizing geothermal heat for centuries. Sure, it wasn’t in the form of advanced power plants and efficient air conditioning systems, but people have visited hot springs for cleansing and bathing since ancient times. This is actually a direct way of putting the earth’s energy to use. Taking a bath in a hot spring today won’t lower your energy bills, but it proves that the ability to utilize geothermal heat has been around for centuries.

The first geothermal energy facility was built in Italy. The first documented attempt was the use of a natural geyser in the earth’s core to generate electricity with the liquid drawn out. At first, scientists wanted to use volcanic material because they had seen the devastation it caused during eruption. After attempts by several individuals to heat their own homes with heat from earth materials, Prince Piero Ginori Conti built a prototype generator that successfully delivered enough wattage to light 4 individual light bulbs. This became the brain child project that began the serious exploration of geothermal energy production as we know it today.

Fast forward to 1960, where Pacific Gas and Electric commissioned the operation of the first modern day geothermal power plant in California. Although the first actual well was drilled as early as 1922, it was a second well that proved this area in California had steam available at a shallow depth in the earth’s crust. Two General Electric turbines were assembled and the site was named the “Geysers”. The Geysers site has since expanded, and now provides power for most of northern California.

In the United States today, less than 1 percent of the total energy produced comes from geothermal energy. Most of these plants were built in California and have been operable since they began. Other states have been slow to adopt geothermal, mostly because of geographical variations. The best geothermal plants are located at the edges of tectonic plates, where the subsurface temperature is warmer at shallower depths. Although advances in turbine and drilling technology have extended the ability to have plants in other locations, it is still more cost effective to be close to tectonic plate edges. Couple this with the fact that there are areas of the United States that have an abundance of other resources (e.g. coal, rivers) geothermal electricity is mostly located in California.

Wait, I Thought it was “Geo Thermal Energy”

A common misconception in the industry is that the name “geothermal” should actually be separated or hyphenated (geo thermal vs. geo-thermal vs. geothermal). Although the word comes from the Greek of two words “geo” (earth) and “thermal” (heat), the current day english translation is in fact “geothermal.” Also, to clarify, there is no difference in the word when referring to electricity production (geothermal energy) or heating and cooling (geothermal HVAC).

Don’t be embarrassed if you’ve made the mistake of saying “geo thermal energy.” It is one of the common misconceptions in the industry, and has been incorrectly spelled on documents and even company marketing signage (if you look hard enough). You will see lots of companies in the industry separate the “geo” and adapt it to a brand name. However, it is in fact one single word.

Benefits of Geothermal Energy

As confusing as it can be, there are lots of benefits of geothermal energy. Like mentioned earlier, geothermal heat can even be used to take a nice warm spring bath (if that’s your thing). Most people are looking to geothermal sources to lower their energy bills. The best way this can be done by an individual is by installing a geothermal heat pump in your residence. On a more broad scale, geothermal energy production offers the benefits of lowering our demand for oil and other traditional fossil fuels.

One of the biggest benefits of geothermal energy is that it is renewable. Where coal and oil are burned and will never be replaced, geothermal energy deep within the ground is renewed. Radioactive decay of materials already deep within the earth add to the heat contained there. Closer to the surface, the sun’s heat has been replenishing energy to the earth’s crust since the beginning of time. Although conceivably we COULD run out of geothermal energy, it is more abundant than every consumable natural resource combined.

There is a rich history of geothermal energy dating back to the early 1900’s. In today’s world where so much energy is dependent on oil from the Middle East, geothermal doesn’t get the respect it deserves. It is surprising to most people to realize that there are several countries who have been producing a double digit percentage of their energy from geothermal for years. It is also surprising to many people in the United States that California hosts the largest single operation geothermal production site in the world. The concept has been utilized on a minuscule scale for centuries, but the technology to produce wide scale electricity is still in it’s infancy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *