WHAT IS GEOTHERMAL ENERGY?

Below the Earth’s crust, there is a layer of hot and molten rock, called magma. Heat is continually produced in this layer, mostly from the decay of naturally radioactive materials such as uranium and potassium. The amount of heat within 10,000 meters (about 33,000 feet) of Earth’s surface has 50,000 times more energy than all the oil and natural gas resources in the world.

The areas with the highest underground temperatures are in regions with active or geologically young volcanoes. These “hot spots” occur at tectonic plate boundaries or at places where the crust is thin enough to let the heat through. The Pacific Rim, often called the Ring of Fire for its many volcanoes, has many hot spots, including some in Alaska, California, and Oregon. Nevada has hundreds of hot spots, covering much of the northern part of the state.

These regions are also seismically active. Earthquakes and magma movement break up the rock covering, allowing water to circulate. As the water rises to the surface, natural hot springs and geysers occur, such as Old Faithful at Yellowstone National Park. The water in these systems can be more than 200°C (430°F).

Seismically active hotspots are not the only places where geothermal energy can be found. There is a steady supply of milder heat—useful for direct heating purposes—at depths of anywhere from 10 to a few hundred feet below the surface virtually in any location on Earth. Even the ground below your own backyard or local school has enough heat to control the climate in your home or other buildings in the community. In addition, there is a vast amount of heat energy available from dry rock formations very deep below the surface (4–10 km). Using the emerging technology known as Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS), we may be able to capture this heat for electricity production on a much larger scale than conventional technologies currently allow. While still primarily in the development phase, the first demonstration EGS projects provided electricity to grids in the United States and Australia in 2013.

If the full economic potential of geothermal resources can be realized, they would represent an enormous source of electricity production capacity. In 2012, the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that conventional geothermal sources (hydrothermal) in 13 states have a potential capacity of 38,000 MW, which could produce 308 million MWh of electricity annually [4].

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