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Earth's internal heat, fueled by radioactivity, provides the energy for plate tectonics and continental drift, mountain building, and earthquakes. It can also be harnessed to drive electric generators and heat homes. Geothermal energy becomes available in a practical form when underground heat is transferred by water that is heated as it passes through a subsurface region of hot rocks (a heat reservoir) that may be hundreds or thousands of feet deep. The water is usually naturally occurring groundwater that seeps down along fractures in the rock; less typically, the water is artificially introduced by being pumped down from the surface. The water is brought to the surface, as a liquid or steam, through holes drilled for the purpose.
By far the most abundant form of geothermal energy occurs at the relatively low temperatures of 80° to 180° centigrade. Water circulated through heat reservoirs in this temperature range is able to extract enough heat to warm residential, commercial, and industrial spaces. More than 20,000 apartments in France are now heated by warm underground water drawn from a heat reservoir in a geologic structure near Paris called the Paris Basin. Iceland sits on a volcanic structure known as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, is entirely heated by geothermal energy derived from volcanic heat.
Geothermal reservoirs with temperatures above 180° centigrade are useful for generating electricity. They occur primarily in regions of recent volcanic activity as hot, dry rock; natural hot water; or natural steam. The latter two sources are limited to those few areas where surface water seeps down through underground faults or fractures to reach deep rocks heated by the recent activity of molten rock material. The world's largest supply of natural steam occurs at The Geysers, 120 kilometers north of San Francisco, California. In the 1990s enough electricity to meet about half the needs of San Francisco was being generated there. This facility was then in its third decade of production and was beginning to show signs of decline, perhaps because of over development. By the late 1990s some 70 geothermal electric-generating plants were in operation in California, Utah, Nevada, and Hawaii, generating enough power to supply about a million people. Eighteen countries now generate electricity using geothermal heat.
Extracting heat from very hot, dry rocks presents a more difficult problem: the rocks must be fractured to permit the circulation of water, and the water must be provided artificially. The rocks are fractured by water pumped down at very high pressures. Experiments are under way to develop technologies for exploiting this resource.
Like most other energy sources, geothermal energy presents some environmental problems. The surface of the ground can sink if hot groundwater is withdrawn without being replaced. In addition, water heated geothermally can contain salts and toxic materials dissolved from the hot rock. These waters present a disposal problem if they are not returned to the ground from which they were removed.
The contribution of geothermal energy to the world's energy future is difficult to estimate. Geothermal energy is in a sense not renewable, because in most cases the heat would be drawn out of a reservoir much more rapidly than it would be replaced by the very slow geological processes by which heat flows through solid rock into a heat reservoir. However, in many places (for example, California, Hawaii, the Philippines, Japan, Mexico, the rift valleys of Africa) the resource is potentially so large that its future will depend on the economics of production. At present, we can make efficient use of only naturally occurring hot water or steam deposits. Although the potential is enormous, it is likely that in the near future geothermal energy can make important local contributions only where the resource is close to the user and the economics are favorable, as they are in California, New Zealand, and Iceland.
Geothermal energy probably will not make large-scale contributions to the world energy budget until well into the twenty-first century, if ever.