What is Geothermal Exploration?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Geothermal exploration is a subset of the field of geology which is focused on finding potential sources of geothermal energy. The goal of geothermal exploration is to locate sites which can be used consistently into the future for the purpose of energy generation, and to evaluate the suitability of such sites for geothermal development. Many nations have invested in geothermal power as a source of renewable, zero-emissions energy which could help replace more polluting and nonsustainable sources of energy like petroleum and coal.

Some geothermal power plants tap into natural hot springs in order to generate power.
Some geothermal power plants tap into natural hot springs in order to generate power.

Geothermal energy harnesses the natural power of the Earth by tapping into the tremendous heat beneath the Earth's crust. It is one of the oldest forms of energy in use; geothermal power has been used in China, North America, and parts of Europe for centuries to heat buildings, cook, and prepare baths. For modern researchers, the primary advantage to this energy source is that it is renewable, because the Earth's core constantly generates more heat, and it produces no emissions.

Some geothermal power plants tap into natural hot springs and steam to power turbines which are used to generate electricity. In other cases, water may be injected into Earth's crust in a geologically active area so that the resulting steam can be trapped and used to power turbines. People can also use the energy directly for heating, as is done in regions like Iceland, where buildings are heated with geothermal power.

Finding a good spot to tap into geothermal power is not as simple as walking along and looking for a big volcano or hot spring. Geologists have to find areas which are consistently geologically active, to justify the expense of establishing a power plant, and they must consider the environmental impact of the energy production. In areas with limited water supplies, for example, dedicating water to geothermal production may not be feasible. Likewise, injecting water into the Earth's crust can cause instability in the soil, which is not a desirable outcome. These factors all need to be taken account in geothermal exploration.

While many people support geothermal exploration, the practice does have some critics. People argue that geothermal power has some distinct disadvantages, such as the fact that hot spots in the Earth's crust eventually cool. Power plants are also generally not very attractive to look at, and installing infrastructure to move the electricity around can be time consuming and counterproductive. If energy needs to be moved across vast distances from a power plant, it can waste a lot of energy and resources. Some communities oppose geothermal exploration because they fear environmental impacts or they resent the idea that a private company can profit from natural resources.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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