Geothermal progress

April 04, 2019 by Denis Pombriant

Lots of us quit counting renewable energy sources after naming wind and solar and while those are two good ones, they’re far from alone. Hydropower, using dams to drive generators has been with us so long that we often overlook its contribution to the overall energy mix. A record 4,185 terawatt hours (TWh) in electricity was generated from hydropower in 2017, according to the 2018 Hydropower Status Report, according to the International Hydropower Association.

Renewables made up 17.1 percent of all US power generation in 2017 but without hydropower that percentage drops to 9.6 percent. So, hydropower is a big deal. Can it go bigger? Probably not. Consider that most of the available rivers have been dammed already and then consider that the political climate is not in favor of more dams and then add to that the reality that climate change is responsible for a significant decline in the amount of water behind existing dams and you have a recipe for not adding significantly to the hydro power profile.

Enter geothermal

Geothermal power generation is another form of renewable energy generation and it might be the 21stcentury equivalent of hydropower. The two have in common a source that’s really close to nature and almost no negative climate impacts. Many conservation-minded people however, point out that dams come with a cost to the ecosystems of rivers.

Geothermal works by capturing heat from the earth’s crust and conducting it as very hot water (300oC or more) from deep underground to a conventional steam turbine that drives a generator. When the super-hot water meets the normal atmosphere it turns to steam and instantly expands and that drives the turbine. But electricity generation isn’t the only use of geothermal energy, another is zone heating in which the hot water is piped to buildings for heating.

The Romans used this approach in Britain when the built public baths in a place still called Bath, UK. Other civilizations have also tapped heat from the earth. Below are some more recent examples of uses for geothermal energy from world-wide sources.

SC Johnson to run HQ on geothermal

In Racine, WI, SC Johnson, a 133-year-old family company is planning to install geothermal power systems to run its headquarters. The company is known for such well-known brands as GLADE®, KIWI®, OFF!®, PLEDGE®, RAID®, SCRUBBING BUBBLES®, SHOUT®, WINDEX® and ZIPLOC® in the U.S. and beyond, with brands marketed outside the U.S. including AUTAN®, BAYGON®, BRISE®, KABIKILLER®, KLEAR®, MR MUSCLE® and RIDSECT®.

When complete the geothermal system including several upgrades to current systems will result in a reduction of 57 to 62 percent of the current energy load. Fisk Johnson, Chairman and CEO of SC Johnson said,

“Leading the industry in an environmentally responsible manner starts at home. For us, that meant taking a look at our operations and finding where we can lessen our impact by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, addressing air quality and increasing the amount of energy offset from renewable resources. Transitioning to geothermal energy at our headquarters goes a long way toward accomplishing those goals.”

US DOE funding

As we’ve noted more than once, sustainability is part of an economic K-wave that will create new industries and jobs in the years ahead.

A good indicator of how the K-wave supporting sustainability works comes from the US DOE which takes the idea seriously enough to have a Geothermal Technologies  Office (GTO).

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently announced up to $7 million toward the research and development (R&D) of innovative subsurface geothermal technologies. DOE’s Geothermal Technologies Office (GTO) will fund projects that will focus on improving geothermal drilling efficiency and cost reduction.

That’s not a great deal of money (okay, it would fund a pretty spectacular weekend in Vegas) but it’s aimed like a laser at improving one of the cost factors of drilling for heat. Moreover, it is far from anything like a make-work project. It’s an investment in the future.

Efforts in India

Emerging economies are doing a lot with renewables including geothermal because it makes a great deal of sense. If you can make energy at home rather than importing it then your hard currency doesn’t have to be exported and spent on something that doesn’t add long term value. Instead, by generating your own renewable energy you get to spend your hard currency on more valuable things like food stuffs, education, and raw materials.

The Indian state of Gujarat is testing three sites for possible geothermal energy generation. The article in ThinkGeoEnergy says the state is drilling wells to a depth of 1500 meters, a relatively shallow distance. Here’s hoping for success.

Norway plans zone heating

Geothermal energy isn’t only for emerging countries though there are projects throughout the developing world. Getting back to heating, Norway is drilling four 1500 meter wells for geothermal zone heating.

According to ThinkGeoEnergy, the project is taking place in Taraldrud, Ski Municipality, Norway. “The drilling site coincides with the area for the construction of a new National Police Emergency Response Center, which is scheduled to be operational by the end of 2020. Financial support for the initiative was provided by Enova, while drilling will be undertaken by two Norwegian companies, Rock Energy and Basum Boring.”

My two bits

Geothermal energy production is one of the most important approaches to renewable energy we have. One of its most appealing aspects is its applicability for baseload power. Other renewables like solar and wind have an intermittency problem that can be nicely sidestepped using big battery farms. But those farms have big price tags. Geothermal avoids all that and for that reason alone it should be part of the energy mix in a national power grid. Also, according to a recent report by MIT funded by the DOE, there’s enough geothermal potential under the Rocky Mountains to replace all other sources in the US.



  • I found it interesting when you talked about how geothermal works and how it’s a great energy source. I believe in general, we only think there are solar and oil-powered energy sources, so it’s interesting to learn more about a different energy option. Personally, I’d be interested in understanding better how geothermal could improve the way we obtain energy. I think you did a great job explaining how geothermal energy could be used for more than a power source.

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