How does Geothermal Technology Work?

Ken Black

Geothermal technology uses the power of the Earth's heat located inside the crust to provide energy for a multitude of uses. The level of sophistication in geothermal technology depends on what is being done and how much energy it is done for. Some systems may use very low levels of heat to supplement space heating needs. Others may use very hot sources in order to produce electricity.

Geothermal power plants convert heat that occurs naturally beneath the earth's surface into electricity.
Geothermal power plants convert heat that occurs naturally beneath the earth's surface into electricity.

In the case of space heating for buildings, whether they be commercial buildings or private residences, geothermal technology uses a very simple process of heat transference in order to accomplish its goal. Geothermal loops are installed and a process of heat transference brings the heat to the building. This is usually accomplished by adding water or antifreeze liquids inside the loop. This then brings the heat up to the surface where it is used and returned to the Earth in a continuous process.

The limitations of this type of geothermal technology are that, other than just to supplement and help control energy costs, it has very little other practical use. In fact, the process produces so little energy that it cannot even be used to totally replace traditional methods of heating inside a structure. To get enough energy to transfer to the masses, a much more sophisticated geothermal technology is required.

Producing enough energy for a large-scale operation means finding enough heat that is close enough to the surface where getting is is cost effective, more heat than is normally produced at many points on Earth. However, those places where it can be found, the energy able to be produced is nearly limitless and very clean. Any by product is usually excess steam, which is not considered harmful for the atmosphere.

Nearly all types of geothermal plants work the same. Steam is used to power a turbine. The friction of the turbine produces electricity, which can then be transferred out via power lines to its final destination, ready to use. To do this, geothermal wells must be drilled. However, the question becomes how to get the steam. In some cases, this is an easy answer; it is produced naturally. In other cases, other liquids must be placed in close proximity to the heat to produce the steam. Either way, the technology is still very clean. Thus, the geothermal technology can change given the situation.

The cheapest type of plant is one where steam is produced naturally. These are found in geologically active area, usually denoted by the presence of geysers or volcanoes. However, these geological features are sometimes tourist attractions as well. This could produce a conflict between two competing industries. In the end, the local society will likely need to make a decision as to which is more valuable, the tourist dollars or the cheap energy.

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