People began harnessing geothermal energy thousands of years before they had the technology to dig down into geothermal reservoirs. The ancient Romans used hot springs to heat their homes, bathe and cook. In 1892, the first modern district heating system was developed in Boise, Idaho. It used water piped from hot springs to heat buildings. The first geothermal energy plant was built in Larderello, Italy, in 1904. Today, geothermal energy is used in France, Turkey, New Zealand, the United States and Japan, among others. Iceland is one of the biggest users of geothermal energy -- virtually the entire city of Reykjavik is heated with water pumped in from hot springs and geothermal wells. Some cities -- like Klamath Falls, Ore. -- even pump hot water underneath their roads and sidewalks in the winter to melt snow and ice.
How Can We Use Geothermal Energy?
Heat is sitting under the Earth -- we just need to tap it. Geothermal energy can be used in three ways:
Direct geothermal energy. In areas where hot springs or geothermal reservoirs are near the Earth's surface, hot water can be piped in directly to heat homes or office buildings. Geothermal water is pumped through a heat exchanger, which transfers the heat from the water into the building's heating system. The used water is injected back down a well into the reservoir to be reheated and used again.
Geothermal heat pump. A few feet under the ground, the soil or water remain a constant 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (10-15 degrees Celsius) year-round. Just that little bit of warmth can be used to heat or cool homes and offices. Fluid circulates through a series of pipes (called a loop) under the ground or beneath the water of a pond or lake and into a building. An electric compressor and heat exchanger pull the heat from the pipes and send it via a duct system throughout the building. In the summer the process is reversed. The pipes draw heat away from the house and carry it to the ground or water outside, where it is absorbed.
Geothermal power plant. Hot water and steam from deep underground can be piped up through underground wells and used to generate electricity in a power plant. Three different types of geothermal power plants exist:
- Dry steam plants. Hot steam is piped directly from geothermal reservoirs into generators in the power plant. The steam spins turbines, which generate electricity.
- Flash steam plants. Water that's between 300 and 700 degrees Fahrenheit (148 and 371 degrees Celsius) is brought up through a well. Some of the water turns to steam, which drives the turbines. When the steam cools it condenses back into water and is returned to the ground.
- Binary cycle plants. Moderately hot geothermal water is passed through a heat exchanger, where its heat is transferred to a liquid (such as isobutene) that boils at a lower temperature than water. When that fluid is heated it turns to steam, which spins the turbines.