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Hydrothermal Power Systems

Geothermal power plant in the Imperial Valley, California.

There are three geothermal power plant technologies being used to
convert hydrothermal fluids to electricity. The conversion
technologies are dry steam, flash, and binary cycle. The type of
conversion used depends on the state of the fluid (whether steam or
water) and its temperature. Dry steam power plants systems were
the first type of geothermal power generation plants built. They use
the steam from the geothermal reservoir as it comes from wells, and
route it directly through turbine/generator units to produce
electricity. Flash steam plants are the most common type of
geothermal power generation plants in operation today. They use
water at temperatures greater than 360°F (182°C) that is pumped
under high pressure to the generation equipment at the surface.
Binary cycle geothermal power generation plants differ from Dry
Steam and Flash Steam systems in that the water or steam from the
geothermal reservoir never comes in contact with the
turbine/generator units.
U.S. Geothermal Power Plants
Power plant photographs
• Casa Diablo • Honey Lake
• Navy 1 • Imperial Valley
• The Geysers • Nevada
• Hawaii • Utah
Dry Steam Power Plants

Dry steam power plants at The Geysers in California.

Steam plants use hydrothermal fluids that are primarily steam. The
steam goes directly to a turbine, which drives a generator that
produces electricity. The steam eliminates the need to burn fossil
fuels to run the turbine. (Also eliminating the need to transport and
store fuels!) This is the oldest type of geothermal power plant. It was
first used at Lardarello in Italy in 1904, and is still very effective.
Steam technology is used today at The Geysers in northern
California, the world's largest single source of geothermal power.
These plants emit only excess steam and very minor amounts of
Flash Steam Power Plants
Hydrothermal fluids above 360°F (182°C) can be used in flash plants
to make electricity. Fluid is sprayed into a tank held at a much lower
pressure than the fluid, causing some of the fluid to rapidly vaporize,
or "flash." The vapor then drives a turbine, which drives a generator.
If any liquid remains in the tank, it can be flashed again in a second
tank to extract even more energy.

Binary-Cycle Power Plants

Most geothermal areas contain moderate-temperature water (below
400°F). Energy is extracted from these fluids in binary-cycle power
plants. Hot geothermal fluid and a secondary (hence, "binary") fluid
with a much lower boiling point than water pass through a heat
exchanger. Heat from the geothermal fluid causes the secondary
fluid to flash to vapor, which then drives the turbines. Because this is
a closed-loop system, virtually nothing is emitted to the atmosphere.
Moderate-temperature water is by far the more common geothermal
resource, and most geothermal power plants in the future will be
binary-cycle plants.

The Future of Geothermal Electricity

Steam and hot water reservoirs are just a small part of the
geothermal resource. The Earth's magma and hot dry rock will
provide cheap, clean, and almost unlimited energy as soon as we
develop the technology to use them. In the meantime, because
they're so abundant, moderate-temperature sites running binary-
cycle power plants will be the most common electricity producers.
Before geothermal electricity can be considered a key element of the
U.S. energy infrastructure, it must become cost-competitive with
traditional forms of energy. The U.S. Department of Energy is
working with the geothermal industry to achieve $0.03 to $0.05 per
kilowatt-hour. We believe the result will be about 15,000 megawatts
of new capacity within the next decade.
DOE Support
The U.S. Department of Energy recognizes the strategic value of
geothermal electricity, and supports its development in several ways
through its Geothermal Technology Development Program. First, it
works with Congress to ensure support for geothermal energy and
renewables in general. Second, it sponsors millions of dollars in
research and development at national laboratories and universities.
Investigators are working on issues in exploration, geochemistry,
drilling, resource usage, and equipment operation. Third, through its
GeoPowering the West initiative, it works with state and local officials
and other stakeholders to identify and overcome regulatory and
institutional barriers to geothermal power development.

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Content Last Updated: 07/06/2010