Geothermal Energy Facts

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Energy Report 2011 banner
© Wild Wonders of Europe / Inaki Relanzon / WWF
Geothermal power comes from the heat of the Earth. Tapping into this energy source – which doesn't require the burning of fossil fuels – is a clean, renewable way to produce electricity.

Natural heating

Geothermal simply means the "Earth’s heat".
At the core of the Earth, some 6,500km below the crust, temperatures reach a grueling 5,500°C – about as hot as the surface of the sun.

The relatively constant temperature of the top 15 metres of the Earth's surface, however, is much cooler – for every 100 metres you go below ground, the temperature increases by about 3°C. This energy can be tapped and used to heat or cool buildings.

A heat pump uses a series of pipes to circulate fluid through the warm ground.

In the winter when the ground is warmer than the buildings above, the liquid absorbs heat from the ground, which is then concentrated by means of heat exchangers or collectors, and transferred to the buildings.

In the summer, when the ground is cooler, the pump transfers heat from the buildings back into the ground, or cools an air conditioning system.

Digging deep

Harnessing geothermal energy often requires digging boreholes to great depths.

In volcanic regions, thermal groundwater is available that can be used directly through hydrothermal power plants, a mature technology, to generate electricity and heat.

Otherwise, where such hot water is not available, water can be pumped between hot layers of rock and then brought back to the surface at high temperature by means of a second borehole.

This new technology, called Enhanced Geothermal Systems or "hot rock"’ technology, uses high heat producing rocks typically found between 3-5km below the surface of the Earth.

 / ©: WWF-Canon / Prokosch
Gushing hot spring in Iceland. Using the firepower of the Earth to produce energy.
© WWF-Canon / Prokosch
The history of geothermal power can be traced back to over 10,000 years ago, when American Paleo-Indians used hot springs for bathing, heating and other activities. It is believed that the first geothermal energy use in industry was during the late 18th century near Pisa, Italy.
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Geothermal power station of Olkaria, Kenya.
© Philippe Oberle / WWF

A growing industry

Due to the availability and continuity of geothermal energy, electricity generation from geothermal sources is of great significance for an energy industry increasingly relying on renewable energy resources.
Today, there are over 9700 MWe installed electricity production and over 15000 MWt for direct thermal use.

With the exception of the Iceland, the US, the Philippines, Indonesia, New Zealand, Mexico and Italy, the use of deep geothermal energy in power plants is still at its infancy.

Further research and development are required to reduce costs and optimize technology.

WWF's Energy Report anticipates that by 2050 geothermal energy could account for around 58 million megawatt hours of electricity per year.

The IPCC projects 24 GW installed by 2020 and 140 GW by 2050.

The challenge will be to tap the huge electricity potentials that lie under the ground, for example in the African Rift Valley or around the geothermal Ring of Fire in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, as well as to systematically heat and cool buildings with shallow geothermal technology.

Clean energy

The use of geothermal energy is clean and renewable, and requires no burning of fossil fuels.
Geothermal power plants emit only excess steam and very few trace gases – 1,000-2,000 times less CO2 than fossil fuel power plants. They also take up very little land compared to traditional fossil fuel plants, and advanced drilling techniques minimize the impact of drilling wells.

The electricity produced is also more available, as fossil-fuelled power plants produce electricity 65-75% of the time compared to 90% from geothermal power plants.

While geothermal resources are not spread uniformly, geothermal heat pumps can be used almost anywhere. When a heat pump is used to provide domestic heating, the savings on electricity alone can outweigh the cost of installing and running the system.

Where geothermal energy is used in agriculture, such as to heat greenhouses, heating costs can be cut by up to 80%.

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