Is Geothermal Energy Renewable? Exploring Power Possibilities of the Future

In Hawaiian mythology, Maui set out to capture the sun to harvest its energy. This myth may be the most effective metaphorical story that illustrates the reach toward clean, renewable energy source systems. 

With the rising environmental concerns about climate change, scientists are exploring options for clean, renewable energy source systems more focused than ever. 

Unlike the ability to physically lasso the sun like Maui, the ability to harvest clean, renewable energy source systems—such as Geothermal renewable energy—is possible and more relevant today more than ever.

History reveals that along with utilizing biomass energy since man discovered fire, humans used wind energy as early as 5,000 BCE as well as Geothermal energy over 10,000 years ago.

However, at the peak of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, fossil fuels (primarily coal, natural gas, and petroleum) replaced biomass energy systems as the leading source of energy. Consequently, renewable energy source systems saw a vast decline. 

Furthermore, when power lines were invented and implemented in the 1930s to carry electricity to rural areas, renewable energy source systems saw a further decline. 

Putting renewable energy source systems on the back burner, so to say, while emphasizing fossil fuel usage as the leading energy source system, our planet has seen the resulting damaging effects.

Our Current State of Energy

Fossil fuels were formed by deceased, prehistoric plants and animals (matter) which were buried by layers of rock over millions of years. The evolution of different types of fossil fuels depended on:

  • What combined matter was present
  • How long the matter was buried
  • The temperature and pressure conditions of the materials at the time of death

The extraction of fossil fuels under the layers of rock is dependent on mining or drilling down into the Earth’s surface. The energy from fossil fuels come in the form of coal, oil, and natural gas. Unfortunately, although fossil fuels have been history’s primary energy source, they:

  • Produce carbon dioxide emissions
  • Harm the ozone layer
  • Pollute the earth

The production of human-made items with fossil fuels—everything from vehicles and plastic to cosmetics and synthetic clothing fibers—continues. “Over the past 20 years, nearly three-fourths of human-caused emissions came from the burning of fossil fuels.”

Put into perspective, we have been utilizing a dangerous source of energy since the 1700s with the initiation of the Industrial Revolution through today. If we’ve been burning fossil fuels—the most proven environmentally damaging energy source—for over 300 years, you can imagine the state of our earth is in today?

Damaging Effects of Using Fossil Fuels

What does the detrimental outcome of carbon dioxide emissions, the damaged ozone layer, and pollution look like in the context of our planet? Here is a list of just a few of the effects these have on our environment:

Land Degradation and Deforestation

Local Water Pollution

Air Pollution

Ocean Pollution

And so much more. Not only has our earth been damaged by the overuse of fossil fuels for over 300 years (when we primarily began burning coal), some belief beyond repair, but fossil fuels will burn out to extinction leaving us without the option of utilizing fossil fuels as an energy source. In other words, fossil fuels are not a renewable source of energy.

But what if there was a way to extract energy that was just as easy to obtain as fossil fuels, causes the least amount of damage to the earth, and is inexhaustible?

Renewable Energy

Renewable energy, also known as clean energy, comes from natural sources that continually replenish. The common belief that renewable energy is new technology is not apt. Minimal examples of renewable energy usage in history include:

Wind powering boats to sail the sea, pumping water, and grinding grain (wind energy system)

Although all of these renewable energy systems are appropriate to utilize in the context of environmentally friendly options, some systems are for specific energy needs, whereas geothermal energy is versatile. 

From Fossil Fuels to Geothermal Renewable Energy

With the prediction that fossil fuels will eventually cease to exist, along with the harmful impact fossil fuels have on our environment, scientists have been looking for clean alternatives for decades.

In an attempt to find a renewable energy source that respects our environment, scientists are seriously looking at furthering our geothermal energy systems due to their versatility and cost efficiency.

Geothermal energy is the natural heat stored within the earth. The inner core of the earth, 1,500 miles in diameter, is as hot as the sun at 10,800 degrees Fahrenheit (°F). Furthermore, when the earth’s crust is broken by tectonic plates, causing volcanoes to occur, the lava and magma heat the rocks and water below the earth’s surface.

Geothermal power is the force behind versatile, inexhaustible geothermal energy. But how is geothermal power harvested from the energy for use?

The Geothermal Energy Extraction Process

We learn the basic concept of the geothermal energy extraction process in an article from the Union of Concerned Scientists:

  • Geothermal power plants drill holes deep into the hot inner core of the Earth to adequately capture the steam
  • Utilize the steam as energy
  • Return the warm water to under the Earth to prolong the heat below

Three Ways to Extract Geothermal Energy

  • Dry Steam: Steam pulls through a power plant turbine into a condenser, which condenses the steam into water
  • Depressurize: Depressurize Earth’s as-hot-as-the-sun water into steam
  • Binary Cycle System: Earth’s hot water passes through a heat exchanger where it heats isobutane (which boils at a lower temperature than water) in a closed loop, creating steam

Are Geothermal Energy Systems Environmentally Safe?

Implementing a new primary energy source is not to be taken lightly. With the overuse of fossil fuels over the last 300 years, we need to tread carefully. The future of our planet is at stake. 

According to studies completed by the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory and the Energy of Geoscience Institute, Geothermal energy is the least harmful environmental energy source (when compared with natural gas, petroleum, and coal).

These systems are safer for our environment, and thus safer for ourselves, because of geothermal energy systems:

  • Don’t burn fossil fuels
  • Produces only one-sixth of carbon dioxide that a natural gas power plant produces
  • Don’t release any emissions
  • Uses a relatively low amount of power 
  • Creates efficient cooling and heating systems
  • Emits close to no greenhouse gases

Is Geothermal Energy Renewable?

Fossil fuels are a temporary energy source because it (prehistoric matter) does not replenish themselves. It begs the question if a new primary wellspring will inevitably run out just as fossil fuels will, perpetuating the cycle for our future generations.

As detailed above, geothermal energy fits within the context of a renewable energy source. Much like the heat of the sun, the Earth’s deep inner core of heat will not run cold (not if there remain living organisms). Thus, because the heat source (inner core) of the geothermal energy system replenishes and is inexhaustible, it is considered renewable.

Why Support Geothermal Energy?

First and foremost: “the nation’s diverse portfolio of renewable energy technologies offers increasingly affordable solutions for providing clean. reliable energy for the 21st Century and will be a key component of the nation’s long-term energy future and economic role in global energy markets.”

Detailed in an article from the Geothermal Energy Association, specifically sponsoring geothermal systems is also supporting an inexhaustible, replenishable supply of energy. Furthermore, geothermal energy:

  • Is reliable 
  • Creates jobs and economic growth
  • Promotes National Security
  • Is environmentally friendly
  • Increases U.S. exports abroad
  • Supports local economic development
  • Is a versatile energy source
  • Makes good economic sense
  • Uses humanly approachable technology
  • Is widely available

Overall, supporting geothermal energy promotes a strong economy, is easy to access and use, and is a versatile, reliable, and renewable, clean energy source. 

Using Geothermal Energy

It wasn’t until the oil shortages of the 1970s presented themselves as a threat to our planet by resulting in an energy crisis. Consequently, the Department of Energy (DOE) was born. In addition to being responsible for advancing the energy security of the United States, the DOE also implements policies regarding fossil fuels and alternative energy sources. In just 17 years, from 2000 to 2017, renewable energy sources have doubled, including Geothermal energy, due to the requirements and incentives enacted and it is predicted to increase further.

Today, we are using three main types of geothermal energy systems. Let’s explore these systems to better understand how we can all support an effective renewable energy system.

Direct Use

Since ancient times, humans have used hot springs for cleaning, cooking, and heating. Today, direct use of geothermal energy looks like pumping hot water just under the earth’s surface directly into buildings for heat.

Electricity Generation 

Generating electricity requires higher water temperatures (found a couple of miles below the Earth’s surface). Today, creating electricity through geothermal energy comes from power plants by drilling deep into the Earth’s surface. 

Geothermal Heat Pumps

Similar to direct use, geothermal heat pumps transfer heat from the ground into buildings during cold months. Initiated in the hot months is a reversal of the process. 

In Conclusion

Reason reveals that because fossil fuels have become the primary source of energy for so many centuries, in addition to the political power and money invested in fossil fuels, the change to renewable energy will take time, global support, and a shift in mentality. 

Change can be hard. But imagine being a part of something brilliant: a future of boundless, geothermal energy. To take action today, The Union of Concerned Scientists urges us to:

  • Seal your house up (preventing the escape of hot and cold air)
  • Install a programmable thermostat (to control the energy usage while you are away)
  • Use power strips (to avoid energy waste)
  • Upgrade appliances over five years old (new appliances are twice as efficient)
  • Use an electricity monitor (to monitor areas of energy leaks)
  • Change bulbs to LED (same light for 15% of the energy)
  • Wash clothes in cold water (detergents today are efficient with cold water)

Like Maui, we need to lasso our abundant and renewable geothermal energy before the damage to our environment and Earth becomes permanently irreversible. It’s time to look toward our future possibilities, and stop living in the past.

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