23 Oct 2008: Report

Deep Geothermal:
The Untapped Energy Source

Until now, geothermal technology has only been used on a small scale to produce power. But with major new projects now underway, deep geothermal systems may soon begin making a significant contribution to the world’s energy needs.

by david biello

In April of 1861, members of the first expedition to cross the Australian continent from south to north and back again blazed the word DIG on an old eucalyptus tree near Cooper Creek. The message for their comrades indicated that stores of food had been buried there that would keep them alive after their arduous trek.

Little did they know that two miles beneath that same soil lay 455° F granite — conducting the Earth's core heat closer to the surface than in most places, but still insulating it with a thick layer of coal- and clay-rich sedimentary rock.

Now a new expedition is digging, or rather drilling, through this soil and rock in an attempt that just might help humanity survive

Enlarge image
The Geysers

Pacific Gas & Electric Company
The Geysers geothermal power plant in California is the world's largest.
the twin perils of global warming and the energy crisis. Brisbane-based Geodynamics has drilled four wells — two test and now one injection and one production — in an attempt to prove that the heat trapped in granite can power Australia past climate change. The company is aiming for 40 megawatts of electricity production at the site by 2010, expanding to 500 megawatts by 2015 — the size of a typical large coal-fired power plant, but without the pollution.

Ultimately, thanks to unusually hot rock close to the surface and existing infrastructure from oil-and-gas production, the Cooper River basin alone could produce about 10,000 megawatts of electricity — enough to replace 20 large coal-fired power plants, says geologist Doone Wyborn, Geodynamic's chief scientist. That’s just a taste of the potential that this technology, known as enhanced geothermal systems, holds for Australia and the world, according to Wyborn.

"Geothermal in Australia,” says Wyborn, “could potentially provide all the country’s electricity needs for the next 100 years without any trouble."

As the world searches for energy sources that don't pump more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, renewables such as wind and solar power have garnered the most attention. But deep geothermal power — water pumped down to the hot rock, heated, and then brought back to the surface to turn turbines for electricity — is increasingly being eyed as an enormous potential source of pollution-free energy. Already, small demonstration plants are operating in France and Germany, while Iceland and the United States have ambitious projects in the works.

As much as 5 percent of U.S. power could come from geothermal by 2050, according to government estimates. But some analysts and scientists say that deep geothermal power, accessed through so-called “enhanced geothermal systems” (EGS), could contribute far more to America’s — and the world’s — energy grid. The potential is certainly enormous: A recent report by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimated that by tapping into geothermal energy, more than 200,000 exajoules of energy could be captured in the U.S. alone, or "2,000 times the (total) annual consumption of . . . energy in the United States in 2005." Says chemical engineer Jefferson Tester of MIT, lead author of the report, "This is a very large resource that perhaps has been undervalued in terms of the impact it might have on supplying energy to the U.S."

But although EGS has many advantages — it produces no emissions of carbon dioxide, is available day and night (unlike sunshine or fickle winds), and can potentially be developed nearly anywhere in the world — much remains to be done before it can be put to use on a large scale. The main barriers are cost and developing sophisticated pumps that can move large volumes of water through fractures in the deep, hot rock.

At present, geothermal power delivers a kilowatt-hour of electricity for somewhere between 10 cents and one dollar, depending on the depth of the hot rock and the
As much as 5 percent of U.S. power could come from geothermal by 2050, according to government estimates.
terrain’s geologic structure. That is far higher than the 6 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity from burning coal. But that gap could steadily shrink as governments worldwide adopt cap-and-trade regimes that tax carbon emissions. As the true cost of burning coal, oil, and natural gas is factored into the equation, and as engineers improve the technologies used by enhanced geothermal systems, the appeal of this form of alternative energy is expected to grow.

"The question is: can we do it better?" says Karl Gawell, executive director of the U.S. Geothermal Energy Association in Washington, D.C. "At what size? And how broadly can it be replicated?"

Deep Well

Tapping the Earth's heat for energy has a long history. Hot springs have been used for bathing and cleaning since ancient times, earning a mention everywhere from Roman annals to the Icelandic sagas. And using such steamy outposts for electricity generation dates as far back as the 1920s. It was then that The Geysers complex in northern California began operating, relying on nature to provide the perfect circumstances — fractured subsurface rock filled with water that is then heated and escapes to the surface.

Today, The Geysers, the largest geothermal power plant in the world, produces enough electricity for 725,000 homes. The more than 1 gigawatt of geothermal power currently produced globally — from California to Iceland to the Philippines — relies nearly exclusively on such natural outpourings of the earth's heat. Already, there are more than 3,000 megawatts of geothermal capacity in the United States – the bulk of it at the The Geysers – and as many as 100 new geothermal power plants are proposed for promising sites. This week, the U.S. Interior Department announced it would make more than 190 million acres of federal land available to lease for geothermal development.

But mimicking nature — drilling deep beneath the surface, fracturing the rock and pumping water through it to capture heat — could
Geodynamics Limited
Steam flows from Geodynamic Limited's Habanero 3 well in Australia.
unleash a torrent of geothermal power, according to the recent MIT report, "The Future of Geothermal Energy." Such a manmade geothermal system could harvest as much as 40 percent of the heat in the bedrock and convert 15 percent of it into electricity via simple low-temperature steam turbines at the surface, according to mechanical engineer Ron DiPippo at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, a member of the MIT report team.

The researchers estimate that for just $1 billion invested over 40 years — the cost of one large coal-fired power plant and a fraction of the cost of a nuclear power plant — 100 gigawatts of clean, dependable geothermal power could be developed in the United States alone. That’s the energy equivalent of more than 200 coal-fired power plants or 100 new nuclear power plants.

The technology to develop EGS on a large scale is not there yet, but will be soon, many scientists say. "We can open up fractures, that's not a problem,” said Tester of MIT, noting that the basic technology already exists. “You can certainly drill wells even directionally. And you can convert the hot water into steam.”

A key benefit of enhanced geothermal systems is their stability. Once in place, geothermal power plants produce electricity nearly all the time, according to Dennis Gilles, senior vice president for geothermal at The Geyser's owner, Calpine. EGS systems outperform even coal-fired power plants, Gilles says.

But the only existing EGS power plants are in Soultz-sous-Forets, France and Landau, Germany, the latter generating 22 gigawatt-hours a year for the European grid. No one has proven that such advanced geothermal systems will work on a large scale. And an effort to develop another such geothermal power plant in Basel, Switzerland pointed up another potential problem: earthquakes.

Unstable Ground

In December 2006 and January 2007, three earthquakes measuring more than 3 on the Richter scale — too small to cause serious damage but large enough to be felt by residents — rattled Basel (which had been leveled by an earthquake in 1356). The cause turned out to be the injection of cold water deep beneath the earth in an attempt to fracture hot, unstable rock and create another advanced geothermal system. The project was brought to a shuddering halt as a result of the tremors.

Such induced seismicity is an integral part of any enhanced geothermal system, in essence revealing where fractures are being created in the subsurface rock. The Geysers, for example, produces more than 3,000 small earthquakes a year, or an average of 10 a day. Some of the tremors are naturally occurring, while others are caused by the limited amount of water The Geysers pumps underground to augment the natural steam created at the site.

Experts say tremors caused by EGS are not likely to be a major stumbling block to the technology, particularly if the plants are located away from large population centers. "Induced seismicity has not caused the type of damaging earthquakes that people think of," explains EGS expert Allen Jelacic of the U.S. Department of Energy's geothermal technologies program. "It's not going to cause your house to fall down or cause significant damage. People could learn to live with it."

Beyond earthquakes, enhanced geothermal systems face the barrier of drilling costs: For the oil-and-gas industry, those costs amount to more than $500 a foot for wells deeper than 18,500 feet, with costs increasing every day. Tapping the geothermal heat in regions like the northeastern U.S. would require drilling nearly twice that deep, and geothermal wells need to be wider and more permanent—read more expensive—than their oil-and-gas counterparts.

Finally, enabling the steady flow of water through fractured hot rock will require pumps that can withstand temperatures in excess of 392° F, pressures of more than 5,000 pounds-per-square inch,
Currently, nearly 100 new geothermal power plants are being planned for development at promising sites.
and corrosive brines. "You have to improve the efficiency of the pumps so that you don't lose too much electricity pumping water around," says Lucien Bronicki, co-founder of geothermal developer, Ormat, in Reno, Nevada. The list of other needs is long: faster drilling techniques, subsurface mapping and an understanding of subsurface fluid flow, high temperature logging tools and sensors, as well as better tracers and tracer interpretation techniques.

But the potential for stable, secure and, perhaps most importantly, carbon-free electricity has drawn investment. The U.S. government has renewed its interest, committing $20 million in 2008 and promising an additional $43 million over the next four years, pending Congressional approval. The U.S. government also wants to collaborate with Australia and Iceland to help develop the technology. The Australian government, for its part, has pledged 43.5 million Australian dollars for such renewable power, and the 39 private companies rushing to take advantage of this program have also been able to raise capital from investors in the stock market. Geodynamics, for example, has raised 319 million Australian dollars from more than 13,000 investors.

And Google.org — the philanthropic arm of the electricity-hungry Internet giant — has committed $11 million in funding for two start-up geothermal companies, including one that is developing a new drilling technique that would melt rock rather than fracturing it, as well as improved subsurface mapping.

"Geothermal is a resource that can be looked at to supply power throughout the U.S.," says geothermal program manager Ed Wall of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Western U.S. is particularly promising as geology conspires to bring the Earth's heat even closer to the surface. California and Nevada host many promising sites. But, assuming that deep drilling and the basic technology can be improved, geothermal resources are available throughout the country. "It's clean, renewable, baseload power," Wall adds.

Hot Prospect

Ultimately, the techniques and technologies that deliver the promise of such enhanced geothermal systems may first be developed at existing natural sites that have proven disappointing in terms of heat or water flow. Already, The Geysers has shown that reinjecting water can improve power production — pumping in wastewater from surrounding California communities boosted electricity output to six million megawatt-hours annually without affecting the temperature of the rock below. The oil-and-gas business has laid the groundwork for much of a potential EGS business — injecting water or other liquids, fracturing rock, manipulating drills and improving drill bits.

"It's not here but it's not 40 years away," Gawell, of the U.S. Geothermal Energy Association adds. "The real challenge isn't the power plant, it's the subsurface."

An Australian outback outpost known as Innamincka will soon become the first completely geothermally powered town in the world using EGS. Geodynamics is in the process of constructing a 1 megawatt pilot plant in the Cooper Basin that should be operational next year and provide power to the town of 15 hardy souls.

Everything needed for the power plant is ready and just needs to be assembled, says civil engineer and Geodynamic's technical advisor, Adrian Williams. "In Australia, there's no shortage of energy,” says Williams. “Clearly the lowest-cost way of generating power is conventional coal. But it's the acceptance of the reality of climate change and the commitment to cut emissions that have provided the economic basis for the investments."

Once the power plant is completed, a conventional transmission line that crosses the 7 miles of outback will turn Innamincka into an electricity oasis. The one-megawatt plant "will satisfy our site needs but more importantly it will enable us to power Innamincka" free of charge, Williams says, adding, “This will be the first powering of a whole township in the world, a township which is currently dependent on diesel generators."

And that will make the Dig Tree and the Cooper Creek basin more than a point of local interest.

POSTED ON 23 Oct 2008 IN Business & Innovation Business & Innovation Climate Energy Energy Policy & Politics Australia Europe North America North America 


I recently travelled to Chile where all forms of energy are quite expensive. Coal fired plants supply electricity to the copper mines now. The rest of Chile's electric power is mostly hydroelectric. They are even discussing building huge hydroelectric plants in the far south to supply electricity to the copper mines in the far north (about 2000 miles away). Yet Chile is littered with hot springs all along the Andes mountains that are less than 100 miles from even the coastal cities. There are no geothermal plants in Chile and no one is even discussing geothermal power there. To me Chile indicates that there is a lot of overlooked geothermal potential around the world.
Posted by kris on 27 Oct 2008

The Innamincka power plant is being developed by Geodynamics Limited, which plans to expand it to 50megawatts in 2012. That is enough capacity to supply up to 50,000 households, but it will send electricity 110 kilometres to the Moomba oil and gas field. The company plans a 500 megawatt plant by 2016, when it expects to supply power down a 500-kilometre, high-power transmission line to the national electricity grid in Port Augusta, and another transmission line to BHP Billiton's Olympic Dam mine, 490 kilometres away. The estimated cost is $2 billion.
Geodynamics estimates the potential of its 2500 square-kilometre exploration area to be 11,000 megawatts. Petratherm estimates its resources will provide 13,000 megawatts. The potential of the entire Cooper Hot Rocks Flow Anomaly is estimated to be 100,000 megawatts. These are enormous resources when compared to Australia's 2006 production of 44,000 megawatts from mostly coal-fired power plants.
Geothermal developments are under way in France, Germany, Switzerland and California, where hot rocks generate 1.6 per cent of total United States energy, the most in the world. But it is the Cooper Basin which has the greatest prospects, with geothermal potential estimated to be sufficient to meet Australia's total electricity demand for 450 years.
Posted by Rob on 16 Nov 2008

We have a lot of geothermals in Kamchatka Peninsula (Russian Far East) but only one GT power station there... Instead of it the Government proposed to develop oil shelf and gas drilling which is a threat to huge living resources there... WWF Ru is campaigning against it. See our webpage: http://wwf.ru.
Posted by Kon Zgurovsky on 21 Nov 2008

I found the article very interesting; if possible I would like to have more informations regarding Geothermal developments in Europe and Chile
Posted by Marco Perini on 24 Feb 2009

Europe is a hotbed (pardon the pun) of geothermal activity, actually. The world's first working enhanced geothermal system is in Soultz-sous-Forets in northern Alsace, France. It's pretty small but you can learn more about it here:


Germany, Switzerland and others are also working on projects or running plants, although the induced earthquake near Basel has set back development somewhat.

As for Chile, new exploration for geothermal resources has been underway since 2000 (when a law was passed) and joint ventures have been formed to develop its "natural" geothermal potential over the next decade or so.

Posted by David Biello on 24 Feb 2009

i like geo thermal for cooling and electricity generation. I look forward to seeing this type of green energy useage grow, currently Toronto and Chicago both use the great lakes to cool downtown skyscrapers. I think that's great but, when you read a paragraph like the one I copied below from the article, it kind of makes the article seem laughable and not based in reality.

"The researchers estimate that for just $1 billion invested over 40 years — the cost of one large coal-fired power plant and a fraction of the cost of a nuclear power plant — 100 gigawatts of clean, dependable geothermal power could be developed in the United States alone. That’s the energy equivalent of more than 200 coal-fired power plants or 100 new nuclear power plants."

Common sense says...RIDICULOUS a billion dollars, barely buys a good cop of coffee.
Posted by f1fan on 06 Mar 2009

A billion gets me a cup of coffee and a billion for a new-economy company, without the strangulation of debt that old-economy companies are dying from. Like 350k installed for a wind turbine that will power 350 homes! Sorry GE.
Posted by Ecohill on 13 Mar 2009

The cost per kwh of geothermal energy is between 5 and 8 cents. The cost of nuclear is less than 2 cents, a 0.2 cent per kwh fee for waste storage and decommisioning has to be paid as well. Naturally capital costs are large as well; about 2/3 the cost of wind power per kwh.

the geothermal heat cannot be directly used as the steam has impurities (mainly sulphur) that need to be clean from the exhausting steam.

I think geothermal is a practical and admirably clean form of power. It's limitation is the number of suitable locations. California has the bulk of the world's geothermal production at 30% of worldwide production. It will never be able to meet anything but a small fraction of our needs. It should be used wherever practical, I would however fight development of Yellowstone for energy.
Posted by Dahun on 20 Mar 2009

We need energy to heat our houses. Remember there is a gas crisis this year in Europe. Why not to use geothermal water at +50C for our everyday needs? It does need so deep holes to be drilled to obtain so low temperature water. It can be drilled anywhere. But +50-60C enough to heat swimming pools, offices, houses in winter. I believe that source of energy is good and cheap to cover 60 percent of the energy we need. Please comment.
Posted by Windpower on 25 Mar 2009

This was a great article! It is refreshing to read a well thought-out, researched article that is not
biased. there is too much bias in the media these days, but this article was spectacular! As an
energy researcher it was nice to have the basics laid out with credible people's opinions! Thanks!
Posted by Claire on 12 May 2009

Great article, and informatively written. I'd like to point out that Nikola Tesla thought of this idea first; exactly as it's proposed in the article. His comment was that the technology for drilling the necessary deep wells wasn't available, but when it was, deep geothermal (not his name for it) would be the energy source of the future.
Posted by Alex Funke on 12 May 2009

A looming energy crisis never seems to enter into the discussion of geothermal power. We had a taste of what could happen to petroleum costs last spring. The economic "downturn" may have headed off inflated fuel costs that would have caused its own economic downturn. As the economies of the world reheat, so will the competition for petroleum. Do we really have 40 years to only partially develop the potential of geothermal energy? When calculating the costs of electricity, who calculates the cost of shipping our wealth to Saudi Arabia or pouring more carbon into the atmosphere? We need to do more than accelerate our efforts to develop geothermal power, we need to race to develop it. And nuclear energy? Raise your hand if you think storing highly toxic waste underground for 10,000 years isn't a bonehead idea.

Posted by jmcgregor on 20 Nov 2009

Thanks for the great information-we need to keep spreading the news about all the benefits of geothermal technology!

Posted by francis on 16 Mar 2010

Comments have been closed on this feature.
david bielloABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Biello has been covering energy and the environment for nearly a decade, the last three years as an associate editor at Scientific American. He also hosts 60-Second Earth, a Scientific American podcast covering environmental news.



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