Generating Electricity from Geothermal Energy


Generating Electricity from Geothermal Energy

Remember how your basic steam turbine works in a power plant that uses fossil fuels: Fuel is burned to heat water in a boiler, to create steam. The steam is used to drive a turbine, which generates electricity. What if you could get all that steam without burning a single ounce of coal, oil or natural gas? That is the appeal of geothermal electricity production. In certain locations (primarily near active or recently active volcanoes) there are very hot rocks deep under the earth’s surface. In these "geothermal" regions, the temperature may rise by 40-50°C every kilometer of depth, so just 3 km, the temperature could be 120 to 150°C, well above the boiling point for water. The rocks in these regions will typically have pore spaces filled with water, and the water may still be in the form of liquid water since the pressure is so high down there (in some very hot areas, the water is actually in the form of steam trapped in the rocks). If you drill a deep well into one of these "geothermal reservoirs", the water will rise up and as it approaches the surface, the pressure decreases and it turns to steam. This steam can then be used to drive a turbine that is attached to a generator to make electricity. In some regards, this is very much like a coal or natural gas electrical plant, except that with geothermal, no fossil fuels are burned, which means no carbon emissions.

There are three basic types of geothermal power plants, depending on the type of hydrothermal reservoir:

  • Dry steam plants, which draw steam directly from deep underground (a la Old Faithful);
  • Flash steam plants, which draw hot water under high pressure up towards the surface. As the pressure decreases, the water boils, which generates steam to power the turbine;
  • Binary steam plants, which utilize hot water (perhaps around 150 degrees Celsius) to vaporize another fluid (one with a lower boiling point). This hot vapor then drives the turbine, generating electricity.

The oldest geothermal plant (1904) in the world is Lardarello, in Italy, which is a dry steam plant. The Geysers, in California, is the largest geothermal installation in the world and the only accessible dry-steam area in the United States (other than Old Faithful and the rest of Yellowstone, which is off-limits). Most modern geothermal plants are “closed-loop” systems, which means that the water (or steam) brought up from the surface is re-injected back into the earth, as shown in the figure below. If the water is not replaced, then eventually, the geothermal reservoir will dry up and cease function.

Drawing of a flash steam geothermal power plant. Water comes up powers a turbine which runs a generator. Water is pumped back into the earth
Closed-loop system of a flash steam geothermal power plant.