What Comes to Mind When You Think of Geothermal Power?

Do you think baseload? Or do you just think of central heating? I am genuinely a fan of debunking myths, superstitions and suppositions. Bob Cain of Lumberport wrote an article entitled “Nothing can replace coal for baseload power needs,” and…

Do you think baseload? Or do you just think of central heating?

I am genuinely a fan of debunking myths, superstitions and suppositions. Bob Cain of Lumberport wrote an article entitled “Nothing can replace coal for baseload power needs,” and he does a good job of explaining the problems of nuclear energy. He is also very informed about the idiosyncrasies of the global gas market, although he doesn’t anticipate that even if coal were as economically superior to gas as he says it is (what with shale having damaged prices), then the widespread commercialization of the clean coal technologies he exhorts would surely have a similarly demoralizing effect on coal markets. But it is at the very least an interesting piece.

The trouble is that he then says “renewable energy can never be constant enough to act as “baseload units of power,” before criticizing (validly, I will admit) the availability of wind and solar power. Despite that, a couple of lines above, he typed the word “geothermal.” Geothermal is a wonderful thing — consider the Lardarello plants in Italy, which next year will have been producing power for a century and a decade. The oldest coal plant in the States began producing power in 1938, 34 years after Lardarello.

You might argue that the Geysers only came on in 1960 and that he is talking about America, not the world — but if Italy can run a geothermal plant that long there is no reason the U.S. can’t. After all, it is the same technology. Other than the accessibility of geothermal resources, location is irrelevant.

Coal really is on its way out, and I don’t mind betting the Geysers will still be puffing away when the last great American coal railway is shut down for good and turned into an attraction. But why don’t people think of geothermal? Media, bloggers, even renewable energy advocates routinely omit the technology from discussions and news. The technology is proven, projects are in the pipeline worldwide — so why does geothermal energy struggle to keep up with solar and wind in the public popularity stakes? Surely it can’t be for the minimal, even negligible seismic susurrations that accompany it. Even the front-loaded financing scheme shouldn’t be too off-putting to your average investor — imagine the sort of action nuclear power, similiarly top-heavy, would be getting were it not for incidents like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima (were it not for Fukushima there might be a dozen more nuclear projects worldwide right now, and that is even with Chernobyl and Three Mile Island in living memory).

A geothermal company executive I spoke to a while back mentioned that, amongst the operational and technological concerns I had called him to discuss, he also perceived the lack of a robust approach to lobbying for geothermal energy in the United States compared to wind and solar. As I’ve mentioned before I believe that education and public perception is the alpha and the omega when it comes to where you get your electricity generation from, and we half-jokingly talked about how it might have to do with the name. Wind and solar: they are very easy to understand. Instantly you picture a wind turbine and a solar panel, sunlight coruscating from the latter in that now classic, easily marketed image. They are the runway models of renewable energy.

But what do you think of when you hear geothermal energy? As a researcher I get a tumble of visions, chief among them clouds of steam emitting from some vast pit surrounded by either dripping rainforests or frigid tundra, and a snaking subterranean tangle of pipes and pumps. Scientists might see a detailed depth diagram coloured according to rock type. But the public and, by extension, most members of national governments, might see a cartoonish image of lava, or a volcano, or not know what to think at all.

Many Californians are more familiar with the concept given they have domestic geothermal heating systems in their homes; likewise for the Icelandic populace. But that might even serve to disassociate geothermal with large-scale power generation as opposed to personal survivalist energy sources (a great blog on Renewable Energy World titled ‘Preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse: Are Microgrids our only Chance?’ unfortunately didn’t explore the last-man-on-earth scenario applications of existing domestic geothermal systems).

So maybe, in an age where renewable energy is a priority and information is shared quicker and in vaster quantities than ever before, it’s the name. A Greek mashup of two words most people already have pretty firmly assigned to other things in their mind — “thermal” we’re all OK with, but “geo” makes us think of geology, and then we’re into a realm of dry science and soil samples. Way off. Personally I think the Indonesian term “panas bumi” or “hot earth” is much more accurately descriptive of where this energy actually comes from.

The one thing that geothermal has in common with solar and wind is this: the resource is there already. The sun shines, the wind blows and our planet is hot. We’re stuck to a ball of rock spinning through space with a terrific heat inside it that our best and brightest are working at better harnessing. How’s that for imagery?