MIT STUDY: GeoThermal to Supply 10% of Energy Demands

by , 02/07/07

Geothermal power, Iceland Geothermal activity, geysirs, photo by Jill Fehrenbacher

Last month MIT released a study claiming that Geothermal Energy could meet up to 10% of U.S. energy demand by 2050. It took 30 years and an 18-member MIT-led panel to prepare a new study on geothermal energy, since it was last actively researched in the late 1970s and early 1980s. With the resurgence and need for alternative energy sources as well as a shifting political concern for our environment, it’s no wonder that studies on geothermal energy have begun to resurface.

GeoThermal2Geothermal Plant outside of Iceland

So what’s so great about geothermal? Unlike other alternative resources, namely wind and solar, geothermal can draw energy twenty-four hours a day seven days a week; and unlike other natural resources (such as power plants that burn coal, natural gas, or oil), no fuel is needed to power a geothermal plant. Essentially, geothermal plants mine the heat from both the hot rock and flowing water below ground. The heat in turn produces steam that drives turbines at the ground level, producing electricity.

You’ll be happy to know that the United States is ahead of the rest of the world, being the largest producer of geothermal energy. And, according to Nafi Toksöz, a geophysicist at MIT, the combined energy of geothermal plants in California, Hawaii, Utah and Nevada is comparable to all the solar and wind power produced throughout the U.S.


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  1. Two geothermals February 15, 2007 at 11:03 pm

    Please check out these entries for the difference between Geothermal power and geothermal heating and cooling. There is a huge difference.

  2. Brian P Mucha February 13, 2007 at 12:07 pm

    Boy that plant sure is beautiful. Won’t it be great to plant a few of those in Yellowstone National Park? I sure wouldn’t want to risk not having a few hundred thousand used car lots lite up like the sun all night.

  3. barry lehrman February 9, 2007 at 9:07 pm

    Out in the California desert is one of the largest geothermal steam power plants in the world on the grounds of China Lake Naval Air Station… The private operators have been injecting water to produce more steam for the past 10 or so years. As a result, the region surrounding the Coso Hot Springs experience more earthquakes then anywhere else in the world – these aren’t little tremblers but 3 – 4.0 magnitude shake your socks off and wake you up from sleep.. But there are no regulatory inhibitions to keep the utility companies from impacting the quality of life and property values from this sort of actions. There is no such thing as a free lunch – geothermal steam has it’s significant environmental impacts too

    There is a huge (figurative and literal) difference between geothermal heat pumps for heating and cooling as discussed above and geothermal steam power generation.

    for more info

  4. Nick Simpson February 9, 2007 at 5:04 pm

    And Sara G, I’m not sure what the costs are, but I’m under the impression that geothermal is one of the most financially viable renewable enrgy source (although as I say, it’s best to use it to provide your space heating and hot water needs). If you have a large amount of land with your house it makes things easier – the two ways of putting the piping in is by either laying it horizontally, all coiled up under the surface of an open area (a lawn, field etc), although it’s realatively deep so you can use this space as normal, or simply by drilling a very deep borehole down and putting the piping in vertically. I’m not sure but I think the former is the cheaper option…

  5. Nick Simpson February 9, 2007 at 4:58 pm

    Elliot, you’ve missed the point entirely… As RK says, it’s beautifully simple. We’re essentially sucking a little bit of heat from the ground and concentrating it. Although I really think that using it to produce electricity is maybe a bit of a waste – much better to use smaller, local systems which simply pipe the hot water directly into the homes nearby for use in space heating, avoiding a huge waste in efficiency by converting the heat into electricity. There’s loads of examples of this being done to supply heat to one or a group of buildings. As long as you’ve got enough land to install the pipework, it works perfectly. Plus, as everything is underground (except the generator/boiler, which is inside) you can’t see a thing. The only downside is that geothermal uses electricity to pump the medium around the pipe, so isn’t actually entirely devoid of energy cost – but when balanced against what you’re gaining for free, it’s brilliant.

  6. Angelika Weller February 9, 2007 at 10:43 am

    I am interested in the potential of causing earthquakes for deep drilling for geothermal??

    Located in Boularder Island on the island of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, we own 200 acres of magnificent land overlooking the Bras d’Or Lakes. It is my dream of developing a unique “global village” using all renewable energy sources, including wind and solar but potentially also geothermal power.

    For anyone interested in contacting me send me an email for more information.

    There is no reason why we cannot create a community such as “Drake Landing Solar” in Alberta.

    I am very much looking forward to entering into a dialogue.


    Angelika Weller

  7. sara G February 8, 2007 at 7:11 pm

    I am struggling whether to put a geothermal heating system in my new home. Anyone know why there are no tax benefits for geothermal for residential applications ….akin to solar tax credits, etc.

  8. onomiko February 8, 2007 at 4:17 pm

    I’ve always wondered what’s taken so long. I recall a piece in a shelter magazine a few years ago about someone who renovated an abandoned urban storefront and the floors above for a private residence and coffee shop in NY (at least, that’s how I remember it). It was probably Dwell. Anyway, they drilled deep under the street to provide geothermal for just that segment of the buiding. Excessive and slightly strange that it’s privat but good for them! There was some talk about a permitting nightmare. If anyone happens to know that article, please post it.

    Also, I’ve been to this very lagoon many times and have to say that enjoying heat and other natural resources that have no perceptible negative by-products is amazing, to say the least. The entire country is heated this way, including a network of greenhouses that provide fresh produce. They know how to do it.

  9. Christoper P. February 8, 2007 at 3:35 pm

    This is a significant undertaking for alternative, relatively sustainable large-scale energy production. The sophisticated answer is that, if we are to invest present petroleum-based industrial manufacturing resources (think concrete and construction steel, lubricants, plastics, machine maintenance, etc) it makes much sense to expend them on long term sustainable processes such as geothermal, (tidal and other alternative) hydroelectric and aeolelectric generators, photovoltaics, and biofuels production and distribution, rather than on expanding petroleum refineries for wasteful fuel practices PROVIDED we also practice significant conservation and appropriately scaled technology, and family planning. Having the means to produce “limitless” energy does not open us to having 12 billion humans, literally becoming the “scum of the Earth”, a plague on the planet.

  10. Manuel Zeitlin February 8, 2007 at 11:18 am

    I’m trying to find out more information about the feasibility of installing geothermal wells under new buildings if anyone has any experience with this.

    Manuel Zeitlin Architect

  11. Greg February 8, 2007 at 7:11 am

    OK Let’s do it than. No more time to WASTE!

  12. Elliott Lake February 8, 2007 at 5:46 am

    Great–another natural system to destroy for energy. Just think of how great Wyoming and Idaho will be with more aquifers depleted of water for geothermal electricity production, how good it will be for the local ecosystems to have their water diverted, ground plumbed and piped, roads bulldozed into these areas for the construction, and all those wonderfully ecological high power lines strung across the landscape to get the electricity to the cities. Once again the folks in the cities come up with an answer—-for them. This is not a green solution, it’s a get-rich quick scheme for developers–and when the wreckage is done to the land, they can just fly back home and leave us with the garbage.

  13. Hannes February 8, 2007 at 1:48 am

    This is such a marvelous idea. It is the first time I hear about this, and I think it could just be the way of the future. Being from South Africa, we don’t really hear about studies like this one, and I think our country can deffinately bennifit from it.

  14. RK February 7, 2007 at 10:19 pm

    Cassandra, I think you need a small review of the functioning of a heat engine. The earth is the source of hot, the air or a lake is the source of cold. By harnessing the flow of energy from hot to cold we can gain work (electricity). Theoretically the maximum efficiency is 100(1-cold/hot), but when the earth has nearly limitless reserves of heat efficiency is less than important.

    There is no generation of heat, we just use what is already there. It is a beautifully elegant solution.

    I also disagree that there is a problem with hydroelectric generation. There is a problem with poorly planned reservoirs, but giant dams are not the only way to gather that energy.

  15. Cassandra February 7, 2007 at 9:29 pm

    I’ve heard a critique of geothermal heating that made a lot of sense; it was basically questioning putting more heat into the earth. Is this something that we will later find out is a bad idea, like large scale hydro energy production, which is now causing tons of problems. Was this part of the study?

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