Geothermal Energy Arguments For and Against

About the arguments for and against the use of geothermal energy as an alternative energy source.



There are abundant supplies. The total power potential of geothermal hot water systems in the U.S. alone has been estimated to be as much as 10 million megawatts, with a resource life of between 100 and 300 years. Systems using the natural heat gradient of the earth are virtually unlimited in power potential; cold water would naturally sink down to replace water heated by the earth, and the rising hot water would be used to run steam generators or water desalination plants. Brine from the processed salt water could be reinjected into the rocks to replenish geothermal fluid supplies depleted by the process. Geothermal plants can be operational in as little as two years, compared to five years for fossil fuel plants and 10 years for nuclear operations.


The development of geothermal reservoirs is often unfeasible because they are too far from major population centers. Geothermal power plants release many pollutants (from processing mineral-laden steam and water), including the dangerous and malodorous gaseous forms of ammonia, hydrogen sulfate, and methane. They also release almost twice as much heat into the atmosphere as nuclear plants and are quite noisy. They are not at all foolproof; well blowouts have been known to rage out of control for days. The pumping or reinjection of thermal fluids may cause earthquakes. Lastly, geothermal drilling is expensive, costing two to three times as much as oil drilling, and present technology limits bore hole depths to 30,000 ft.


While the earth's heat resources seem to offer an endless supply of power, much more research needs to be done, and it appears that a break-through in drilling technology is necessary to make the various processes economically feasible. There is optimism, however. Former Secretary of the Interior Walter J. Hickel concluded that ". . . geothermal resources, by approximately 1985, can have a potentially enormous impact in supplying the nation's needs for energy and augmenting the supply of water in regions with insufficient natural water. . . The development of geothermal resources could substantially increase national energy self-sufficiency and provide a dramatic improvement in the U.S. balance of payments posture."

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