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Looking Ahead: Geothermal Energy in 2016

Posted by Megan Wild, Guest Columnist

Jan 12, 2016 3:47:19 PM

Are we ready to turn our backs on fossil fuels for good?

With landmark climate change negotiations recently wrapping up in Paris, the world looks like it’s finally ready to begin turning its back on GHP3LoopEnergyTransferGeoPowerBook.jpgfossil fuels. In conversations about alternative energy sources, wind and solar power tend to dominate the conversation, while geothermal sometimes seems to take a back seat.

But 2016 looks like it might finally change that.

So what is geothermal energy, and how can we use it? That’s the question we’re here to answer.

What Is Geothermal Energy?

First, a quick primer to answer an important question: What is geothermal energy, anyway?

Think of it like this: as the earth receives energy from the sun, about 20% of it is absorbed by the atmosphere, 30 percent of it is reflected back into space, and 50 percent of it is absorbed by the planet’s surface. It’s that last chunk — the 50 percent — that geothermal technologies seek to harness.

You can think of geothermal heat pumps as you would the roots of a tree: it reaches into the earth and harnesses the energy that would otherwise go to waste.

Why Is 2016 the Year of Geothermal Energy?

Technology has finally reached affordability and efficiency standards that put geothermal generators within reach of the average homeowner. People everywhere are going to start turning to this emerging technology as a great alternative to more familiar approaches to home energy generation.

For example, noisy outdoor air conditioning units will soon be a thing of the past, replaced with apparatuses that operate quietly and efficiently beneath the ground. This also means that the components are naturally shielded from storms and bad weather, as well as falling debris like tree limbs. Even better, geothermal heat pumps are exceptionally durable and long-lasting.

The applications of geothermal energy are as varied as any of our traditional power generation methods. Geothermal technology is finding use in:
  • Heating individual homes and sometimes entire towns
  • Providing an ideal growing environment for greenhouses and nurseries
  • Heating the water used at fish farms
  • Assisting in agricultural and industrial applications like pasteurizing milk
And that’s only the beginning. Researchers are also looking at ways to use this technology to generate electricity directly.

For now, most geothermal reservoirs in the United States are located in Alaska, Hawaii, and the western states, although further refinements to the technology will likely make this type of power generation more widely available.

Local and State Regulations

It might sound like exploring geothermal as an addition to your household’s power generation needs would be difficult, lengthy, or vastly different from other types of power generation. The good news is this: there’s years of precedent and well-established regulatory oversight for people who are interested in leveraging this emerging technology.

The local permits and licenses associated with geothermal energy generation are not that different from what you’d need for traditional well drilling, general construction, air emissions, and water rights. Geothermal developers will need to obtain permits at both the state and county levels, but these channels will be well known to any established player in home and commercial energy.

How Does It Compare to Gas and Diesel?

The important thing to remember is that geothermal — along with other next-generation energy production methods like nuclear, hydropower, solar, and wind — emits a tiny fraction of the air pollutants generated by traditional fossil fuels. Geothermal also has the distinction of generating fewer pollutants than any technology currently being used for heating and cooling purposes.

In addition, geothermal energy’s quick rise in popularity has, of course, been accompanied by a variety of breakthroughs that should help us transition smoothly out of our last few decades of dependence on fossil fuels. For example, diesel engines in generators and automobiles continue to become more efficient and friendlier to the environment. Diesel oxidation catalysts can reduce particular matter by as much as 20 percent, which means diesel will remain an attractive solution well into the future for a variety of applications.

A Future Within Reach

We’re many, many years away from the sort of zero-emissions future envisioned by world leaders at the recent Paris Climate Conference. Until that time, it’s encouraging that large companies like Kellogg, CAT, and more are actively looking for ways to help traditional sources of energy exist peaceably alongside emerging technologies like geothermal generators.

At the end of the day, it’s clear that no single source of energy will carry us into the future. It’s going to take a variety of technologies, both new and old, as well as thoughtful applications of them, to bring us back into balance with the natural world.

Megan Wild is a normal human who happens to be very passionate about our planet. Hey, when it's 60 degrees in December, can you afford not to be?

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