What is geothermal energy?
Most people would have heard about wind turbines and solar panels. Many people will have heard about ocean energy or biomass… But geothermal energy is a rather ignored source of energy. It is however a renewable energy worth noting as its use keeps getting more and more popular; even in Ireland, its use doubled in four years, supplying 0.3% of total energy production of the country from 2009 to 2013. Thermal energy means “heat energy”. Geothermal energy is the heat energy of the Earth’s crust. It comes from the original formation of the planet and from radioactive decomposition of materials.
Types of geothermal energy
The centre of the earth is really hot, approximately 4,200 degrees but at the Earth’s surface the temperature is usually too low to be used directly. So researchers and companies dig deep to use this kind of heat, bringing it to the Earth’s surface.
With shallow we mean that it is nearer to the Earth’s surface. Water circulates in closed loop pipes underground, driven by pumps. The water gains heat from its passage underground and brings the heat back to the surface into a house or into an industrial building. This kind of installation is the most common worldwide for energy purposes.
The idea to use this warmth started with hot springs being enjoyed as thermal spas for thousands of years. The world’s oldest geothermal district heating system was developed in the 14th century in France. However, the use of Earth’s heat as a source of electrical energy began in the early 20th century when electricity was produced for the first time from geothermal steam in Italy in 1904.
First Geothermal Power Station in Larderello, in Southern Tuscany, Italy
Advantages and disadvantages
One of the biggest advantages this energy source has over many other renewable energy sources is that it does not rely on any type of weather. It is available all the time. It is a reliable provider for electricity and heat. It is also available in every country and it is not subject to price rises that fossil fuels impose on the market. Their installations are mostly underground so they have little impact on landscapes.
However, geothermal has some disadvantages as well. Historically and geographically, deep geothermal has been limited to areas near tectonic plates boundaries and drilling for acquiring this heat is actually really expensive. Thermal systems can also run out of steam because the temperature is suddenly too cold.
Some environmental concerns have been expressed about this industry’s development as well. The main concerns are about factories releasing a poisonous and flammable gas called hydrogen sulphide that smells like rotten eggs. Moreover, extracting geothermal fluids may cause changes underground that will make the soil sink, and those fluids are likely to contain a some toxic materials.
Studies need to be done in advance to prevent drilling in an area that may sink. There are various methods available to remove the hydrogen sulfide and other toxic materials from the fluids exploited in the geothermal energy industry. The right measures must be taken before this industry is allowed to be developed.
The Irish underground is very complex because two different tectonic plates crashed into each other a long time ago, creating a crack in the earth running diagonally from Clare to Antrim, and dividing the country. Two other cracks, parallel to this one, divide the country again; making it difficult to organize any drilling for deep geothermal energy. Such drilling is still under study and some Irish areas show a lot of potential for it. However, the use of shallow geothermal energy is quite common in Ireland. This sector quickly developed until 2009 and then slowed down. Still, no district heating operations have been organised in our country, currently there are no plans to generate electricity from this renewable energy source.