A massive project funded by Google exposes the vast untapped geothermal reserves available to the United States’ power infrastructure.
How much energy? you ask. Well, the researchers based their estimates on what current technology is able to extract – not any hypothetical future advances. Even so, it turns out that there is three million megawatts of potential geothermal energy below the surface of the United States. That’s ten times the energy of every coal plant in the United States online today.
The actual report is here. It staggers me that these figures are using current tech, not future tech. That’s done by drilling deep holes — which we can already do quite well, to reach buried oil — then piping water down one hole so we get steam back up another. Steam that powers a turbine, that generates enough electricity for practically free that all we have to do is keep the thing running and free of mineral deposits from then on.
Whenever someone says we have to stop burning fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, gasoline in vehicles, etc) and start using renewable energy, the only options ever proffered are a) wind/solar, b) nuclear, and c) biodiesel. I mention geothermal in pretty much every single such conversation, and nobody bothers pursuing that line of argumentation — the greens-vs-dirtys always talk about nuclear power as being the only realistic solution to the problem, where biodiesel continues pumping CO2 into the atmosphere, and wind and solar are grossly inefficient in current implementations.
Space solar might become a reality if we can figure out how to keep it from getting shot through by every passing bit of space debris we’ve already put into orbit, but it’s not nearly usable in an infrastructure capacity today without massive investment. Which the oil industry has proven unwilling to do, by the by, as long as they’re getting huge subsidies from the government despite record profits.
And nuclear power has its share of issues — we humans have a tendency toward sloppiness with our engineering endeavours, and so accidents like Fukushima happen when we build nuclear power plants without regard for the potential destruction of main power by a natural disaster. The fact that the core was allowed to melt down because they had no way to generate power to pump water to cool the rods, suggests to me that they had no adequate and proper contingency plan for how to deal with a tsunami knocking out their only means of cooling the radioactive materials. The result, more radiation than originally estimated. More than twice the radiation originally estimated.
We could learn from these mistakes and build better, more resilient, more disaster-proof nuclear power plants. But nuclear materials are inherently dangerous, and we are really harnessing the lightning by using them. They also take a long time to build, so if we started one today, it would go on line in ten or so years. The US and China are practically competing to see who can build the most coal plants the fastest, and contributing to the global warming that will inevitably result in a planetary mass extinction event, not to mention the suffering it will cause humans themselves.
And all the while, the solution to our power problem and our climate change problem is right beneath our feet.
I’m not saying that there will not be some potential far-off hazard that necessitates that we switch off of geothermal power — say, for instance, bleeding off the core’s heat slowly, causing a permanent cooling of the inner parts of the planetary core. Call that “global cooling”, I guess. Considering eighty percent of the core’s heat is coming from radioactive materials generating that heat, and the core has stayed as hot as it is for 4.5 billion years so far, I’d say we’re safe for a good long while yet. Certainly long enough to be able to get off this rock and colonize another some time in the distant future, if such a feat is possible, and if we can avoid committing suicide until then. Hilariously, that means geothermal power is technically nuclear power, so the nuclear power advocates were sort of right all along! You know, once we look past the fact that we’re trying to bottle that lightning in our own back yards and are shocked (heh) when it destroys everything around us.
But we humans are terrible at long-term planning, aren’t we? Both with regard to engineering as evidenced with our nuclear power problems, and with regard to the long term survival prospects of our species as a whole.