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12 Geothermal power

Geothermal energy is the heat contained within the body of the earth. The origins of this heat are found in the formation of the earth from the consolidation of stellar gas and dust some 4 billion years ago. Radioactive decay within the earth continually generates additional heat which augments that already present. Most of this heat cannot be exploited but in some places a geothermal anomaly creates a region of high temperature close to the surface. In such cases it may be possible to use the energy, either for heating or in some cases to generate electricity. The most obvious signs of an exploitable geothermal resource are hot springs and geysers. Geothermal energy is attractive for power generation because it is simple and relatively cheap to exploit. In the simplest case steam can be extracted from a borehole and used directly to drive a steam turbine. uch easily exploited geothermal resources are rare but others can be used with little more complexity. The virtual absence of atmospheric emissions means that geothermal energy is clean compared to fossil!fuel!fired power. The " #epartment of $nergy classifies geothermal energy a renewable one. The geothermal resource There are three principle types of geothermal resource. The simplest to exploit is a source of hot underground water which either reaches the surface naturally or can be tapped by drilling boreholes. %here there is no underground water source, anomalies in the crust can create regions where the roc& close to the surface is much hotter than usual. This hot roc& can be accessed by drilling and though it is not practical to exploit the heat today, experimental wor& may ma&e its use possible in the future. The third, and richest source, is the magma itself. This contains by far the greatest amount of heat energy but because of the temperatures and pressures found within it, this is also the most difficult geothermal energy source to exploit. It has been suggested that there is between '( and '(( times as much heat energy available for power generation as there is energy recoverable from uranium and thorium in nuclear reactors. )ertainly, the resource is enormous. Geothermal fields Geothermal fields are formed when water from rain or snow is able to seep through faults and crac&s within roc&, sometimes for several &ilometres, to reach hot roc& beneath the surface. *s the water is heated it rises naturally bac& towards the surface by a process of convection and may appear there in the form of hot springs, geysers, fumaroles or hot mud holes. ometimes the route of the ascending water is bloc&ed by an impermeable layer of roc&. "nder these conditions the hot water collects underground in the crac&s and pores of the roc& beneath

the impermeable barrier. This water can reach a much higher temperature than the water which emerges at the surface naturally. Temperatures as high as +,(-) have been found. uch geothermal reservoirs can be accessed by boring through the impermeable roc&. team and hot water will then flow upwards under pressure and can be used at the surface. Most of the geothermal fields that are &nown today have been identified by the presence of hot springs. More recently geological exploration techni.ues have been used to try and locate underground geothermal fields where no hot springs exist. ome geothermal fields produce simply steam, but these are rare. More often the field will produce either a mixture of steam and hot water or hot water alone, often under high pressure. *ll three can be used to generate electricity. #eep geothermal reservoirs may be / &m or more below the surface. These can produce water with a temperature of '/(0+,(-). 1ightemperature reservoirs are the best for power generation. hallower reservoirs may be as little as '(( m below the surface. These are cheaper and easier to access but the water they produce is cooler, often less then ',(-). This can still be used to generate electricity but is more often used for heating. Geothermal reservoirs are not limitless. They contain a finite amount of water and energy. *s a conse.uence both can become depleted if overexploited. %hen this happens either the pressure or the temperature 0 or both 0 of the fluid from the reservoir declines. In theory the heat within a subterranean reservoir will be continuously replenished by the heat flow from below. In practice geothermal plants have traditionally extracted the heat faster than it is replenished. "nder these circumstances the temperature of the geothermal fluid falls and the practical life of the reservoir is limited. $stimates for the practical lifetime of a geothermal reservoir vary. This is partly because it is extremely difficult to gauge the si2e of the reservoir. 3etter understanding of the nature of the reservoirs and improved management will help maintain them for longer. Brinemethane reservoirs In some rare cases underwater reservoirs of hot brine are found to be saturated with methane. These reservoirs will normally occur in a region rich in fossil fuel. %here such as reservoir is found it is possible in principle to exploit both the heat in the brine and the dissolved methane gas to generate electricity. Hot dry rock %here hot roc& exists close to the surface, it is possible to create a manmade hydrothermal source. This is accomplished by drilling down into the roc& and then pumping water through the borehole into the subterranean roc&. If water is pumped under high pressure it will cause the roc&

to fracture, creating faults and crac&s through which it can move. 4In fact underground roc& often contains natural faults and fractures through which the water will percolate.5 If a second borehole is drilled ad6acent to the first, then water which has become heated as it has percolated through the roc& can be extracted and used to generate electricity. Exploiting the magma $xtracting energy from accessible magma plumes which have formed within the earth7s outer crust is the most difficult way of obtaining geothermal energy but it is also the most attractive because of the enormous .uantities of heat available. #rilling into, or close to such hot regions is difficult because the e.uipment can easily fail. *s an additional ha2ard, if a drill causes a sudden release of pressure, the result can be explosive. *nd ways have yet to be found to tap the heat. Research continues but it is a long!term pro6ect with no immediate prospect of exploitation. Location of geothermal resources The easiest geothermal resources to exploit are those that can provide water or steam with a temperature above /((-). Resources of this type are located almost exclusively along the boundaries between the earth7s crustal plates, in regions where there is significant plate movement. 8ower!temperature underground reservoirs exist in many other parts of the world and though these contain less energy they can be used to generate electricity too. Today it is difficult to estimate the si2e of this energy resource but as survey techni.ues improve, more accurate data will become available. 3ased on data available at the beginning of the twenty!first century, reservoirs located in the " *, for example, could provide '(9 of the " electricity. The world geothermal resource based on underground reservoirs is probably larger than the combined si2e of coal, oil, gas and uranium reserves. 1ot underground roc& is even more widespread and the amount of energy contained in these roc&s is enormous. 1owever its exploitation will re.uire the development of hot!dry!roc& technology. This technology is still in its early stages. Magma resources are also li&ely to be widespread but the extent of the resource has not been widely explored. Geothermal energy conversion technology There are three principle ways of converting geothermal energy into electricity. $ach is designed to exploit a specific type of geothermal resource. The simplest situation occurs where a geothermal reservoir produces hightemperature dry steam alone. "nder these circumstances it is possible to use a direct!steam power plant which is analogous to the power train of a steam turbine power station but with the boiler replaced by the geothermal steam source.

Most high!temperature geothermal fields produce not dry steam but a mixture of steam and hot water. This is most effectively exploited using a flash!steam geothermal plant. The flash process converts part of the hot, high!pressure li.uid to steam and this steam, together with any extracted fluid directly from the borehole, is used to drive a steam turbine. %here the geothermal resource is of a relatively low temperature a third system called a binary plant is more appropriate. This uses the lowertemperature geothermal fluid to vaporise a second low boiling point fluid contained in a separate, closed system. The vapour then drives a turbine which turns a generator to produce electricity. irect!steam power plant #ry!steam geothermal reservoirs are extremely rare. %here they exist the steam, with a temperature of ':(-) to +,(-), can be extracted from the reservoir through a borehole and fed directly into a steam turbine. team from several wells will normally be fed to a single turbine. The pipes which carry the steam from the wellheads to the turbine contain various filters to remove particles of roc& and any steam which condenses en route. The steam turbine in a direct!steam geothermal plant is usually a standard reaction turbine. $fficiency is low at around +(9. "nit si2e in modern plants is typically between /( and '/( M%. In some cases the steam exiting the turbine may be released directly into the atmosphere. 1owever the steam usually contains between /9 and '(9 of other gases such as carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide. "nder these circumstances the exhaust from the steam turbine must be condensed to remove the water and then treated to remove any pollutants such as hydrogen sulphide before release into the atmosphere. Ideally the geothermal fluid should be returned to the underground reservoir but it is often more economical to release the gas and dispose of the water produced as a result of condensing the steam from the turbine at the surface. )ontinual removal of fluid without replenishment eventually leads to a depletion in the .uality of fluid available from the reservoir. "lash!steam plants Most high!temperature geothermal reservoirs yield a fluid which is a mixture of steam and li.uid brine, both under high pressure 4typically up to '( atmospheres5. The steam content, by weight, is between '(9 and ,(9. The combined fluid is passed through a valve into a vessel maintained at a lower pressure than the geothermal fluid from the reservoir. The sudden reduction in pressure ;flashes7 a proportion of the hot li.uid to steam. This steam can then be separated from the li.uid and used to drive a steam turbine. The steam exiting the steam turbine must be treated in exactly the same way as the exhaust from a direct!steam geothermal plant in order to prevent atmospheric pollution. The

remaining li.uid, meanwhile, must be in6ected into the geothermal reservoir since it usually contains high levels of dissolved salts which can cause pollution. * further refinement to the flash!steam plant is called double-flash technology. This involves ta&ing the fluid remaining from the first flash process and releasing it into a second vessel at even lower pressure. This results in the production of more steam which can be fed to a second, low!pressure turbine or in6ected into a later stage of the turbine powered by the steam from the first flash. * double!flash plant can produce up to /,9 more power than a single flash plant. <lash technology plants will generally return a much higher percentage of the geothermal fluid 0 up to :,9 for a single flash plant and somewhat less for the double!flash plant 0 to the geothermal reservoir. )apacities for flash geothermal power plants are normally between /( and ,, M%. Binary power plants #irect! and flash!steam geothermal power plants utilise geothermal fluid with a temperature of between ':(-) and +,(-). If the fluid is cooler than this, conventional steam technology will normally prove too inefficient to be economically viable. 1owever energy can still be extracted from the fluid to generate power using a binary power plant. In a binary power plant the geothermal fluid is extracted from the reservoir and immediately passed through a heat exchanger where the heat it contains is used to volatilise a secondary fluid. This secondary fluid is contained within a completely closed cycle system. The fluid may be an organic li.uid which vaporises at a relatively low temperature or, in the case of the =alina )ycle, a mixture of water and ammonia. The vaporised secondary fluid is used to drive a turbine from which power can be extracted with a generator. <rom the turbine the vapour is condensed and then pumped through the heat exchanger once more. Thus the cycle is repeated. The geothermal fluid exiting the heat exchanger, meanwhile, is rein6ected into the geothermal reservoir. ince '((9 of the fluid is returned underground, this type of geothermal power plant has the smallest environmental impact. Typical binary plant unit si2e is '0+ M%, much smaller than for the other types of geothermal technology. 1owever the small modular units often lend themselves to standardisation, reducing production costs. everal units can be placed in parallel to provide a plant with a larger power output. Environmental considerations #rilling re.uires significant .uantities of water and this must be ta&en from local water courses. To minimise environmental effects, this should be ta&en from high!flow streams and rivers, preferably during the rainy season.

Induced seismic activity has also been lin&ed with re!in6ection, but a causal lin& is difficult to prove since most geothermal pro6ects are in regions of high or regular seismic activity. *ny carbon dioxide contained in the fluid from the subterranean reservoir will be released and there may be traces of hydrogen sulphide too. 1owever the latter can be removed chemically to prevent release. The saline brine can cause serious groundwater pollution. To prevent such pollution, modern geothermal plants re!in6ect all the extracted brine after use. Financial risks The ma6or ris& associated with developing a geothermal pro6ect concerns finding a geothermal resource suitable for exploitation. 1aving identified a suitable surface site, pre!feasibility studies are li&ely to cost around >' million, with a +(9 change of failure. Test drilling, usually three wells at up to >/ million per well, has a similar prospect of failure. This ris& can be reduced by careful surface study followed by prioritisation of the available sites. 1aving identified a reservoir and assessed its potential, the ris& associated with the power plant technology used to exploit it is minimal. *ll geothermal technologies in current use are well tested and predictable. ?ew methods of exploiting the heat energy in the earth such as hot!roc& techni.ues are still in an early stage of development and the ris&s here are large. 1owever this technology is a long way from commercial exploitation. The cost of geothermal power There are three initial areas of outlay, prospecting and exploration of the geothermal resource, development of the steam field and the cost of the power plant itself. )osts for a good resource vary between >'',( and >/+((@&% depending on plant si2e. %here the resource is poor, large plants are not normally economically viable. )osts for small power plants under these circumstances vary between >/((( and >+A((@&%. <urther indirect costs will be incurred, depending on the location and ease of access of the site. These will vary from ,9 for an easily accessible site and a local s&illed wor&force to B(9 of the direct cost in remote regions where s&illed labour is scarce. These costs will all be part of the initial investment re.uired to construct a plant. $lectricity production costs will depend partly on this, partly on financial arrangements such as loan repayments and partly on continual operation and maintenance costs.