Geothermal

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Geothermal energy comes from two sources: from radioactive decay in the crust of the earth, and from heat trickling through the mantle from the earth's core. The heat in the core is there because the earth used to be red-hot, and it's still cooling down and solidifying; the heat in the core is also being topped up by tidal friction: the earth flexes in response to the gravitational fields of the moon and sun, in the same way that an orange changes shape if you squeeze it and roll it between your hands.

Geothermal is an attractive renewable because it is "always on," independent of the weather; if we make geothermal power stations, we can switch them on and off so as to follow demand.

But how much geothermal power is available? We could estimate geothermal power of two types: the power available at an ordinary location on the earth's crust; and the power available in special hot spots like Iceland (figure 16.3). While the right place to first develop geothermal technology is definitely the special hot spots, I'm going to assume that the greater total resource comes from the ordinary locations, since ordinary locations are so much more numerous.

The difficulty with making sustainable geothermal power is that the speed at which heat travels through solid rock limits the rate at which heat can be sustainably sucked out of the red-hot interior of the earth. It's like trying to drink a crushed-ice drink through a straw. You stick in the straw, and suck, and you get a nice mouthful of cold liquid. But after a little more sucking, you find you're sucking air. You've extracted all the liquid from the ice around the tip of the straw. Your initial rate of sucking wasn't sustainable.

If you stick a straw down a 15-km hole in the earth, you'll find it's nice and hot there, easily hot enough to boil water. So, you could stick two straws down, and pump cold water down one straw and suck from the other. You'll be sucking up steam, and you can run a power station. Limitless power? No. After a while, your sucking of heat out of the rock will have reduced the temperature of the rock. You weren't sucking sustain-ably. You now have a long wait before the rock at the tip of your straws warms up again. A possible attitude to this problem is to treat geothermal heat the same way we currently treat fossil fuels: as a resource to be mined rather than collected sustainably. Living off geothermal heat in this way might be better for the planet than living unsustainably off fossil fuels; but perhaps it would only be another stop-gap giving us another 100 years of unsustainable living? In this book I'm most interested in sustainable energy, as the title hinted. Let's do the sums.

crust mantle crust mantle

Figure 16.1. An earth in section.
Figure 16.2. Some granite.
Figure 16.3. Geothermal power in Iceland. Average geothermal electricity generation in Iceland (population, 300 000) in 2006 was 300 MW (24 kWh/d per person). More than half of Iceland's electricity is used for aluminium production. Photo by Gretar Ivarsson.

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