In the midst of energy politics, one question is always on the table: if we want to reduce the usage of fossil fuels, what are we going to use? Every nation seems to have its own opinion on the matter. However, this question is always examined from two perspectives – economic and environmental.
‘Modern’ Electricity Production
It is a matter of fact that there are many different ways to produce electricity. The most widespread means at the moment are burning of coal, gas or oil to heat water and produce steam, which in turn spins a turbine and generates electricity. However, this is obsolete technology dating from the industrial revolution, much like the Thomas Edison-style lightbulb, which has now been replaced by more efficient means of illumination.
In terms of ‘renewable energy’, people are constantly hammered by information on solar pv panels, wind turbines, and hydro-power. The fact of the matter is that the Sun’s energy is abundant, wind is commonplace in many areas of the world, and rivers always have and always will keep flowing. Harnessing this energy is simple through technology that already exists and their effect on the environment is clear – there are no greenhouse gasses released in the process.
The economic side is more difficult to swallow. The two concepts to keep in mind are cost and efficiency. The installation of solar pv panels is costly and, in some regions of the world, not very effective due to long periods of cloud cover. Wind turbines, although less expensive, also vary in their electricity production due to changing wind speed. In these terms, hydropower is the best bet, since its costs are not high, but output is guaranteed due to the continuing flow of rivers. However, the construction of dams or hydro-installations has a hidden environmental cost related to ensuring water-supply.
“The Power of the Future” from the 1950’s
In light of these facts, the question of nuclear power always comes up. Yes, nuclear power does not produce greenhouse gas emissions, but it does create nuclear waste – a radioactive by-product. Although the technology exists for its safe storage, it remains highly controversial and dangerous. Also, nuclear accidents in history have shown that atomic energy is hard to control. For this reason, Germany announced in June 2011 that it will dismantle all its nuclear power plants (NPPs) by 2022. This is a hard decision since atomic power currently produces 25% of Germany’s electricity. How will it be replaced in light of growing demand?
To highlight the problem of dismantling nuclear energy production, a simple case study of Belgium shows how hard it is to take a decision. The country imports 97.4% of its oil and 99.8% of its natural gas. In the potential scenario of decommissioning nuclear power plants, a further increase of fossil-fuel usage would also increase the import dependency and the pollution resulting from it.According to a law passed in 2003, all NPPs have to be deactivated after a lifetime of 40 years after their commissioning and no new operating licenses for NPPs may be granted. Nevertheless, there is an exception included in the law, which states that it can be disregarded to guarantee the supply of electricity for a limited amount of time. In August 2008, when a project for a modification of the 2003 law was proposed and discussed in the Parliament, the main concerns brought up were that a decommissioning of the NPPs as scheduled would increase electricity prices, would lead Belgium to become indebted through obligation to purchase ‘carbon credits’, and would increase the import dependency of the country. These issues were the result of a report published by Belgium’s ‘Commission Energy 2030’ in 2007 and presented to the Parliament in July 2008, which outlined the economic threats posed by the proposed deactivation. In such a scenario, Belgium remains dependent on nuclear power.
Yet, in the wake of Germany’s nuclear shut-down, and the persistent idea that fossil fuels have to be phased out, what is going to happen? The truth is that the country will increase many of its solar pv and wind-turbine investments, which are already quite high, even though solar currently produces a mere 1% of electricity and wind is already destabilizing the grid. In this case, an increase of natural gas will occur. This is unsustainable in the long run and a more tangible solution needs to be found.
Groundbreaking Technology – figuratively and literally
So, where is the panacea? One solution is geothermal power. It is less costly than any other renewable alternative, including advanced nuclear power. It also has no hidden environmental cost. The technology is available and in use in 24 countries around the world. Most notably, Iceland produces 30% of its electricity using this technology. On a grander scale, the USA generates 3 GW using geothermal power (which is still 0.3% of the total, but shows the potential).
The technology is simple – drill a hole into the Earth, close enough to the molten lava below the hard surface (which can be between 3 and 100 meters), where temperatures are above 150 degrees Celsius, install a pipe through which you let water run, and it will come back up as steam. The electricity generation is the same as in a conventional power plant, but it uses the Earth’s heat to create water vapor rather than fossil fuels. This process can be made even more efficient if organic chemicals such as isobutane or pentafluoropropane, which boil at lower temperatures than water, are used. The beauty of it – it is natural, does not produce greenhouse gasses or any waste, and does not require large amounts of land.
On the economic side, there are certain obstacles. Geothermal power plants require a large initial investment, just like nuclear power plants. This includes capital for exploration, drilling wells, and plant construction. However, this investment is significantly lower than any other renewable energy alternative. From this point on, the plant entails little operational cost. In the typical scenario, approximately 75% of the plant’s costs are from the initial investment, and 25% are operational expenditure. As a point of comparison, a gas-fired power plant’s initial investment is 33% of its cost, while operational expenditure (including fuel) constitute 66%. Take into account that as the cost of fuel increases, so does this percentage, while the fuel for geothermal energy is free.
There is also the issue of where such technology can be used. Just like solar and wind power, geothermal cannot be installed just anywhere. The following two maps show the potential for geothermal capacity in the USA and Europe as proven by extensive research.
Out with the old…
In the end, geothermal power is not actually “in with the new”. It has been around for centuries. It was used in Paleolithic (Stone Age) times for bathing and the Romans used it to heat their homes. A more picturesque example are the natural hot springs in Finland, which attract numerous tourists every year. Politicians have embraced the idea of de-carbonizing the economy and decommissioning nuclear power. Research shows that they might just embrace geothermal power as well.
An opportunity you might never have thought of before – taking a bath next to a power plant: