Geothermal energy is a type of energy that is actually pulled from the ground. Deep in the base of the Earth are layers of hot water, hot rock and magma. Each of these different layers are capable of heating more than just themselves and that’s where geothermal energy actually comes from. It’s actually a type of energy that comes from the sub layers of the Earth and provides heat as well as cooling to a variety of different areas.
The heat actually comes from a relatively shallow area and only goes down to about 10 feet or even less in the Earth’s surface. At this range the Earth’s temperature is about 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit at all times. That means you don’t have to worry about what the temperature is going to be outside and how it will affect your home. These regions of the Earth actually don’t fluctuate in temperature so you’re always heating or cooling the space from exactly the same temperature instead of a variety of temperatures.
Geothermal actually means internal heat of the Earth so when you think about that it’s pretty obvious what you’re getting. But that doesn’t mean that it has to be used only for heating. It’s actually great to use in the cooling process as well and it helps with the creation and usage of energy within an area.
The rest of this article will help explain the process by which geothermal energy can be used for all of these different aspects but for now just know that it actually has a variety of different uses and it’s completely organic, occurring naturally beneath the surface of the Earth.
The uses of geothermal energy
There are many different ways that you can use geothermal energy. One that is becoming more common (and a lot more environmentally and wallet friendly) is using it to heat a home. The pipes are put in underneath the house (or business) and drilled down into the layers of the Earth so that the heat can be put to use heating and cooling the building. The process that is used to do this is going to be described more carefully below.
Yet, heating and cooling is not the only reason we use geothermal energy. In fact, the most common use for this type of energy is for electricity. In some western states of the United States there are wells driven to create a spinning turbine that generates high amounts of electricity. This electricity can then be sent anywhere it needs to be. Because this is more environmentally friendly than other forms of electricity generation and is completely natural it is a lot cheaper than getting electricity in other ways.
So the truth of the matter is that you can use geothermal energy in a few different ways. It is currently not being used in a lot of different areas (for reasons we’ll talk about below) but at the same time it’s definitely considered a great idea. The problem is it’s generally a good idea in theory and we’ll explain why that is as well. For the most part, there are some great benefits to geothermal energy, but there are also a lot of drawbacks and problems that arise when we start to consider this method of natural, highly renewable energy from the Earth.
How does geothermal energy work?
Geothermal energy for heating works by creating a system of pipes that reach down into the surface of the Earth. These pipes consist of a heat pump, some ductwork and something called a heat exchanger. The heat exchanger can take heat either from the inside (during the summer) or the pipes (during the winter). This allows the energy to come into the home or business without the need for traditional forms of heat. This helps to improve the cost efficiency of the building because heat from the Earth is very inexpensive (once you set up the system anyway).
Because the center of the Earth is hotter as you get closer to it, many believe that this process would only work to save money during part of the year. Some may not realize how it’s going to save money at all. But the fact is that it can save a lot. This is because the core temperature that you start with is between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
When you’re trying to get warmer in the winter your heater is starting from temperatures that could be below zero and trying to get up to the correct temperature in your home or business. This means you have to pay money to get that temperature from 0 all the way up to 60 or 70. If you start with a temperature of 50-60 this process is going to be much less expensive.
Now when you consider this from the other way you can see that starting at 50-60 degrees is still much lower than the outdoor temperature which could be in excess of 80 degrees. You end up getting your home or business to the temperature that you want much faster than you would in a traditional way and you also get to save money because it takes a lot less energy to cool the air from more moderate temperatures instead of high ones.
If you are going to use geothermal energy as a form of electricity you will need to drill into the bedrock of the Earth. You need a reservoir that will generate enough steam to power the turbine or that will generate enough hot water to boil into a steam that will power the turbine. Either of these methods will create the electricity that is needed and can be used for other purposes. These methods are still being improved upon but have not even begun to tap the full potential of heat from the center of the Earth.
What are the advantages of geothermal energy?
There are actually quite a few advantages of geothermal energy. One of the biggest ones is the lower cost involved. Because geothermal energy relies on something that occurs naturally in the Earth (the hot core) and that is automatically regenerated (the core will stay hot even when air is taken from it) there is no danger of hurting the Earth and the cost can reflect the renewability of the source for energy. The cost can stay low because it’s possible to harvest this heat more naturally and for less expense than traditional forms of heating and cooling for homes.
Another benefit of this type of energy is that you need a lot less energy for the heating and cooling process. This is because the temperature increase or decrease that is needed, depending on the present weather situation, is much lower than with traditional methods which would require the air from outside to be heated or cooled to the desired temperature for the inside.
Instead, these temperatures will generally only need to be heated or cooled within a 10 degree radius, which allows for a lot less time spent in waiting for this process and far less expense involved in the process as well.
Geothermal energy as an electricity source is also less expensive because it is renewable and capable of providing large amounts of electricity in a geographic area. This helps to cut down on the amount of fossil fuels that are typically burned for the production of electricity and which are not only harming the atmosphere but are also considered non-renewable, meaning that they will not regenerate in a reasonable amount of time.
This means that once they are gone they will not regenerate within our lifetime and most likely not within several lifetimes after we are gone.
This type of energy also releases no pollution because it’s actually based in water and steam. So when those components of the heating system are released they don’t affect the atmosphere and that means fewer greenhouse gasses contributing to the rise in temperature.
It means that we also around polluting the ground or the water that we need for the rest of the environment and all the plants and animals that live here with us. It’s important that we keep the world as clean as we possibly can and by switching over to geothermal energy this is far more likely and much simpler at the same time.
Another benefit for this type of energy is that it is creating a lot of jobs. Because it hasn’t been used previously we have to find new ways to implement it. This means new jobs for people who can come up with the plans for how to use it, how to get it and what it means for the world we live in. Al these extra jobs will help improve the lives of many people and even improve entire communities because they are able to generate those jobs with higher rates of pay, improving the economy.
What are the disadvantages of geothermal energy?
Of course, there have to be some disadvantages to geothermal energy or it already would have been implemented absolutely everywhere. After all, these are some great advantages and you would think they would outweigh a lot of the disadvantages. The truth is that they do outweigh a lot of disadvantages, but the problem is that they can’t outweigh all of them. That’s why this is still a slow process to take hold and not everyone is getting right into it like we might want or hope. After all, we have to weigh out a lot of different factors.
The first disadvantage is that it needs to be implemented in a variety of different places. In order to be implemented the equipment, infrastructure and of course employees need to be found in the area. This is not possible in all areas and it’s often difficult to get the required items to the area that they are needed in. Also, training needs to be conducted in order to ensure that, once the staff that are trained leave, the entire system is still going to be run properly and efficiently, therefore improving the economy instead of wearing down the environment.
Next, the high cost of putting in the system deters many places and individuals from wanting to put it in. Sure it’s going to save a lot of money in the long run but first you have to get there. Getting the system installed is going to cost a large amount of money because drilling has to be done down into the sub-layers of the Earth. This isn’t a simple process and it definitely requires some hard work and some heavy duty (and expensive) equipment. Running the system of pipes and connecting it is also not a simple process.
Harmful gases exist below the surface of the Earth as well. These can include a number of toxic products which can be extremely harmful to the environment and to the people working in the sites and even around the sites. Anyone that works with active sites (such as those for electricity) will need to have the ability to contain anything that might come to the surface during drilling or during the process of harvesting the steam and water that is needed to run the turbines. If not, these chemicals could cause extreme problems for anyone that is too close to the site.
Another thing that may not even be considered by most is that the right concentration of steam or hot rocks is necessary. In some regions this is not achievable because the rocks needed are too far below the surface and impossible to reach via normal means.
Some of these regions are not capable of continuing to produce steam either, much as a volcano will only erupt under the right conditions, these regions under the surface may not ‘erupt’ with enough steam to power the plants and this could be found after the plant has already been created and established.
In order to make sure that the region is right for a geothermal energy plant, the company involved has to go through a lot of work determining what is going on below the surface. They have to understand whether or not the region is going to support a geothermal plant and for how long.
If they put all this research into a particular area only to find out it’s not going to work they are running up extreme costs without getting any type of reward. Even worse, if they put a factory in the area and then find out it doesn’t work they’ve lost extremely large amounts of money.
Finally, this type of energy doesn’t transport. That means we would have to have a geothermal energy factory for every few cities or towns. Unlike fossil fuels that are used for energy and electricity, these types of energy, the steam and hot water, will not be capable of transport and therefore they can only be used in a relatively small geographic area.
This results in less benefits for the factory that is producing the energy because they can’t ever expand the business to power larger areas unless they build additional facilities and factories. One will never be able to power more than a few small areas.
To use or not to use?
All in all there are many reasons that geothermal energy is actually a big improvement over what we presently have in the way of heating, cooling and electricity. It provides a lot of benefits like reduced costs for use, faster/greater temperature changes inside of buildings, no pollution leaking into the environment from fossil fuels, less reliance on fossil fuels for anything, improvements in the area of greenhouse gasses, additional jobs and a completely renewable source for energy that is greatly needed around the entire world.
Check out our article on how solar panels work for more useful options.
At the same time the drawbacks are the extremely high costs that are involved in setting up such a system and the research and extensive planning that is involved in the entire process. Not to mention the fact that these types of energy are not capable of making large amounts of money for the companies that invest in them because they can’t be transported and can’t even be installed in every region of the country.
As a result, the disadvantages are currently discouraging most businesses from investing in this type of energy. This means that adoption is quite slow and will likely be a gradual process.
In regards to personal use for geothermal energy as a method of heating and cooling homes and businesses however, this type of energy is definitely taking off. The initial cost to implement the pipes and system into an individual facility is somewhat high but the overall cost savings are luring a lot of people to take that leap and jump in. The fact that costs for heating and cooling as well as the reliability of that heating and cooling are better is definitely bringing more and more people around to this way of thinking and adoption of this process.
For other sources of energy, see our article on how solar energy works for more information.