About Geothermal

Geothermal energy

Geothermal energy is thermal energy generated and stored in the Earth. Thermal energy is the energy that determines the temperature of matter. The geothermal energy of the Earth’s crust originates from the original formation of the planet (20%) and from radioactive decay of minerals (80%). The geothermal gradient, which is the difference in temperature between the core of the planet and its surface, drives a continuous conduction of thermal energy in the form of heat from the core to the surface. The adjective geothermal originates from the Greek roots γη (ge), meaning earth, and θερμος (thermos), meaning hot.

Earth’s internal heat is thermal energy generated from radioactive decay and continual heat loss from Earth’s formation. Temperatures at the core–mantle boundary may reach over 4000 °C (7,200 °F).[3] The high temperature and pressure in Earth’s interior cause some rock to melt and solid mantle to behave plastically, resulting in portions of mantle convecting upward since it is lighter than the surrounding rock. Rock and water is heated in the crust, sometimes up to 370 °C (700 °F).

From hot springs, geothermal energy has been used for bathing since Paleolithic times and for space heating since ancient Roman times, but it is now better known for electricity generation. Worldwide, 11,400 megawatts (MW) of geothermal power is online in 24 countries in 2012.An additional 28 gigawatts of direct geothermal heating capacity is installed for district heating, space heating, spas, industrial processes, desalination and agricultural applications in 2010.

Geothermal power is cost effective, reliable, sustainable, and environmentally friendly, but has historically been limited to areas near tectonic plate boundaries. Recent technological advances have dramatically expanded the range and size of viable resources, especially for applications such as home heating, opening a potential for widespread exploitation. Geothermal wells release greenhouse gases trapped deep within the earth, but these emissions are much lower per energy unit than those of fossil fuels. As a result, geothermal power has the potential to help mitigate global warming if widely deployed in place of fossil fuels.

The Earth’s geothermal resources are theoretically more than adequate to supply humanity’s energy needs, but only a very small fraction may be profitably exploited. Drilling and exploration for deep resources is very expensive. Forecasts for the future of geothermal power depend on assumptions about technology, energy prices, subsidies, and interest rates. Pilot programs like EWEB’s customer opt in Green Power Program show that customers would be willing to pay a little more for a renewable energy source like geothermal. But as a result of government assisted research and industry experience, the cost of generating geothermal power has decreased by 25% over the past two decades. In 2001, geothermal energy cost between two and ten US cents per kWh.


The International Geothermal Association (IGA) has reported that 10,715 megawatts (MW) of geothermal power in 24 countries is online, which was expected to generate 67,246 GWh of electricity in 2010. This represents a 20% increase in online capacity since 2005. IGA projects growth to 18,500 MW by 2015, due to the projects presently under consideration, often in areas previously assumed to have little exploitable resource.

In 2010, the United States led the world in geothermal electricity production with 3,086 MW of installed capacity from 77 power plants. The largest group of geothermal power plants in the world is located at The Geysers, a geothermal field in California.[26] The Philippines is the second highest producer, with 1,904 MW of capacity online. Geothermal power makes up approximately 27% of Philippine electricity generation.

Installed geothermal electric capacity
Country Capacity (MW)
Capacity (MW)
Percentage of national
electricity production
Percentage of global
geothermal production
United States 2687 3086 0.3 29
Philippines 1969.7 1904 27 18
Indonesia 992 1197 3.7 11
Mexico 953 958 3 9
Italy 810.5 843 1.5 8
New Zealand 471.6 628 10 6
Iceland 421.2 575 30 5
Japan 535.2 536 0.1 5
Iran 250 250
El Salvador 204.2 204 25
Kenya 128.8 167 11.2
Costa Rica 162.5 166 14
Nicaragua 87.4 88 10
Russia 79 82
Turkey 38 82
Papua-New Guinea 56 56
Guatemala 53 52
Portugal 23 29
China 27.8 24
France 14.7 16
Ethiopia 7.3 7.3
Germany 8.4 6.6
Austria 1.1 1.4
Australia 0.2 1.1
Thailand 0.3 0.3


Geothermal electric plants were traditionally built exclusively on the edges of tectonic plates where high temperature geothermal resources are available near the surface. The development of binary cycle power plants and improvements in drilling and extraction technology enable enhanced geothermal systems over a much greater geographical range. Demonstration projects are operational in Landau-Pfalz, Germany, and Soultz-sous-Forêts, France, while an earlier effort in Basel, Switzerland was shut down after it triggered earthquakes. Other demonstration projects are under construction in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.

The thermal efficiency of geothermal electric plants is low, around 10–23%, because geothermal fluids do not reach the high temperatures of steam from boilers. The laws of thermodynamics limits the efficiency of heat engines in extracting useful energy. Exhaust heat is wasted, unless it can be used directly and locally, for example in greenhouses, timber mills, and district heating. System efficiency does not materially affect operational costs as it would for plants that use fuel, but it does affect return on the capital used to build the plant. In order to produce more energy than the pumps consume, electricity generation requires relatively hot fields and specialized heat cycles. Because geothermal power does not rely on variable sources of energy, unlike, for example, wind or solar, its capacity factor can be quite large – up to 96% has been demonstrated. The global average was 73% in 2005.


Geothermal energy comes in either vapor-dominated or liquid-dominated forms. Larderello and The Geysers are vapor-dominated. Vapor-dominated sites offer temperatures from 240-300 C that produce superheated steam.

 Liquid-dominated plants

Liquid-dominated reservoirs (LDRs) are more common with temperatures greater than 200 °C (392 °F) and are found near young volcanoes surrounding the Pacific Ocean and in rift zones and hot spots. Flash plants are the most common way to generate electricity from these sources. Pumps are generally not required, powered instead when the water turns to steam. Most wells generate 2-10MWe. Steam is separated from liquid via cyclone separators, while the liquid is returned to the reservoir for reheating/reuse. As of 2013, the largest liquid system is Cerro Prieto in Mexico, which generates 750 MWe from temperatures reaching 350 °C (662 °F). The Salton Sea field in Southern California offers the potential of generating 2000 MWe.

Lower temperature LDRs (120-200 C) require pumping. They are common in extensional terrains, where heating takes place via deep circulation along faults, such as in the Western US and Turkey. Water passes through a heat exchanger in a Rankine cycle binary plant. The water vaporizes an organic working fluid that drives a turbine. These binary plants originated in the Soviet Union in the late 1960s and predominate in new US plants. Binary plants have no emissions.

Geothermal heating

Geothermal heating is the direct use of geothermal energy for heating applications. Humans have taken advantage of geothermal heat this way since the Paleolithic era. Approximately seventy countries made direct use of a total of 270 PJ of geothermal heating in 2004. As of 2007, 28 GW of geothermal heating capacity is installed around the world, satisfying 0.07% of global primary energy consumption. Thermal efficiency is high since no energy conversion is needed, but capacity factors tend to be low (around 20%) since the heat is mostly needed in the winter.

Geothermal energy originates from the heat retained within the Earth since the original formation of the planet, from radioactive decay of minerals, and from solar energy absorbed at the surface. Most high temperature geothermal heat is harvested in regions close to tectonic plate boundaries where volcanic activity rises close to the surface of the Earth. In these areas, ground and groundwater can be found with temperatures higher than the target temperature of the application. However, even cold ground contains heat, below 6 metres (20 ft) the undisturbed ground temperature is consistently at the Mean Annual Air Temperature and it may be extracted with a heat pump.


Some parts of the world, including substantial portions of the western USA, are underlain by relatively shallow geothermal resources. Similar conditions exist in Iceland, parts of Japan, and other geothermal hot spots around the world. In these areas, water or steam may be captured from natural hot springs and piped directly into radiators or heat exchangers. Alternatively, the heat may come from waste heat supplied by co-generation from a geothermal electrical plant or from deep wells into hot aquifers. Direct geothermal heating is far more efficient than geothermal electricity generation and has less demanding temperature requirements, so it is viable over a large geographical range. If the shallow ground is hot but dry, air or water may be circulated through earth tubes or downhole heat exchangers which act as heat exchangers with the ground.

Steam under pressure from deep geothermal resources is also used to generate electricity from geothermal power. The Iceland Deep Drilling Project struck a pocket of magma at 2,100m. A cemented steelcase was constructed in the hole with a perforation at the bottom close to the magma. The high temperatures and pressure of the magma steam were used to generate 36MW of electricity, making IDDP-1 the world’s first magma-enhanced geothermal system.

In areas where the shallow ground is too cold to provide comfort directly, it is still warmer than the winter air. The thermal inertia of the shallow ground retains solar energy accumulated in the summertime, and seasonal variations in ground temperature disappear completely below 10m of depth. That heat can be extracted with a geothermal heat pump more efficiently than it can be generated by conventional furnaces.[8] Geothermal heat pumps are economically viable essentially anywhere in the world. One district heating system at Drake Landing in Alberta, Canada uses seasonal thermal energy storage (STES) to store summer heat in the ground that can be accessed in winter for space heating and allowed it to achieve a world record annual 97% solar heating fraction in 2012.

Ground Source Heat Pumps

In regions without any high temperature geothermal resources, a Ground Source Heat Pump (GSHP) can provide space heating and space cooling. Like a refrigerator or air conditioner, these systems use a heat pump to force the transfer of heat from the ground to the building. Heat can be extracted from any source, no matter how cold, but a warmer source allows higher efficiency. A ground-source heat pump uses the shallow ground or ground water (typically starting at 10–12 °C or 50–54 °F) as a source of heat, thus taking advantage of its seasonally moderate temperatures. In contrast, an air-source heat pump draws heat from the air (colder outside air) and thus requires more energy.

Ground Source Heat Pumps (GSHP) are NOT geothermal, i.e.,There is no geyser providing heat to be captured. GSHP merely accesses stored solar heat energy in the soil or rock. GSHPs circulate a carrier fluid (usually a mixture of water and small amounts of antifreeze) through closed pipe loops buried in the ground. Single-home systems can be “vertical loop field” systems with bore holes 50–400 feet deep or, if adequate land is available for extensive trenches, a “horizontal loop field” is installed approximately six feet subsurface. As the fluid circulates underground it absorbs heat from the ground and, on its return, the warmed fluid passes through the heat pump which uses electricity to extract heat from the fluid. The re-chilled fluid is sent back into the ground thus continuing the cycle. The heat extracted and that generated by the heat pump appliance as a byproduct is used to heat the house. The addition of the ground heating loop in the energy equation means that significantly more heat can be transferred to a building than if electricity alone had been used directly for heating.

Switching the direction of heat flow, the same system can be used to circulate the cooled water through the house for cooling in the summer months. The heat is exhausted to the relatively cooler ground (or groundwater) rather than delivering it to the hot outside air as an air conditioner does. As a result, the heat is pumped across a larger temperature difference and this leads to higher efficiency and lower energy use.

This technology makes ground source heating economically viable in any geographical location. In 2004, an estimated million ground source heat pumps with a total capacity of 15 GW extracted 88 PJ of heat energy for space heating. Global ground source heat pump capacity is growing by 10% annually.

Enhanced geothermal

Enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) actively inject water into wells to be heated and pumped back out. The water is injected under high pressure to expand existing rock fissures to enable the water to freely flow in and out. The technique was adapted from oil and gas extraction techniques. However, the geologic formations are deeper and no toxic chemicals are used, reducing the possibility of environmental damage. Drillers can employ directional drilling to expand the size of the reservoir. Small-scale EGS have been installed in the Rhine Graben at Soultz-sou-Forects in France and at Landau and Insheim in Gremany.


Geothermal power requires no fuel (except for pumps), and is therefore immune to fuel cost fluctuations. However, capital costs are significant. Drilling accounts for over half the costs, and exploration of deep resources entails significant risks. A typical well doublet (extraction and injection wells) in Nevada can support 4.5 megawatts (MW) and costs about $10 million to drill, with a 20% failure rate.

In total, electrical plant construction and well drilling cost about €2–5 million  per MW of electrical capacity, while the break–even price is 0.04–0.10 € per kW·h.[14] Enhanced geothermal systems tend to be on the high side of these ranges, with capital costs above $4 million per MW and break–even above $0.054 per kW·h in 2007. Direct heating applications can use much shallower wells with lower temperatures, so smaller systems with lower costs and risks are feasible. Residential geothermal heat pumps with a capacity of 10 kilowatt (kW) are routinely installed for around $1–3,000 per kilowatt. District heating systems may benefit from economies of scale if demand is geographically dense, as in cities and greenhouses, but otherwise piping installation dominates capital costs. The capital cost of one such district heating system in Bavaria was estimated at somewhat over 1 million € per MW. Direct systems of any size are much simpler than electric generators and have lower maintenance costs per kW·h, but they must consume electricity to run pumps and compressors. Some governments subsidize geothermal projects.

Geothermal power is highly scalable: from a rural village to an entire city.

The most developed geothermal field in the United States is The Geysers in Northern California.

Geothermal projects have several stages of development. Each phase has associated risks. At the early stages of reconnaissance and geophysical surveys, many project are cancelled, making that phase unsuitable for traditional lending. Projects moving forward from the identification, exploration and exploratory drilling often trade equity for financing.


The Earth’s internal thermal energy flows to the surface by conduction at a rate of 44.2 terawatts (TW),[41] and is replenished by radioactive decay of minerals at a rate of 30 TW. These power rates are more than double humanity’s current energy consumption from all primary sources, but most of this energy flow is not recoverable. In addition to the internal heat flows, the top layer of the surface to a depth of 10 meters (33 ft) is heated by solar energy during the summer, and releases that energy and cools during the winter.

Outside of the seasonal variations, the geothermal gradient of temperatures through the crust is 25–30 °C (77–86 °F) per kilometer of depth in most of the world. The conductive heat flux averages 0.1 MW/km2. These values are much higher near tectonic plate boundaries where the crust is thinner. They may be further augmented by fluid circulation, either through magma conduits, hot springs, hydrothermal circulation or a combination of these.

A geothermal heat pump can extract enough heat from shallow ground anywhere in the world to provide home heating, but industrial applications need the higher temperatures of deep resources. The thermal efficiency and profitability of electricity generation is particularly sensitive to temperature. The more demanding applications receive the greatest benefit from a high natural heat flux, ideally from using a hot spring. The next best option is to drill a well into a hot aquifer. If no adequate aquifer is available, an artificial one may be built by injecting water to hydraulically fracture the bedrock. This last approach is called hot dry rock geothermal energy in Europe, or enhanced geothermal systems in North America. Much greater potential may be available from this approach than from conventional tapping of natural aquifers.

Estimates of the potential for electricity generation from geothermal energy vary sixfold, from .035to2TW depending on the scale of investments. Upper estimates of geothermal resources assume enhanced geothermal wells as deep as 10 kilometres (6 mi), whereas existing geothermal wells are rarely more than 3 kilometres (2 mi) deep. Wells of this depth are now common in the petroleum industry. The deepest research well in the world, the Kola superdeep borehole, is 12 kilometres (7 mi) deep. This record has recently been imitated by commercial oil wells, such as Exxon’s Z-12 well in the Chayvo field, Sakhalin.

Renewability and sustainability

Geothermal power is considered to be renewable because any projected heat extraction is small compared to the Earth’s heat content. The Earth has an internal heat content of 1031 joules (3·1015 TW·hr). About 20% of this is residual heat from planetary accretion, and the remainder is attributed to higher radioactive decay rates that existed in the past. Natural heat flows are not in equilibrium, and the planet is slowly cooling down on geologic timescales. Human extraction taps a minute fraction of the natural outflow, often without accelerating it.

Geothermal power is also considered to be sustainable thanks to its power to sustain the Earth’s intricate ecosystems. By using geothermal sources of energy present generations of humans will not endanger the capability of future generations to use their own resources to the same amount that those energy sources are presently used. Further, due to its low emissions geothermal energy is considered to have excellent potential for mitigation of global warming.

Even though geothermal power is globally sustainable, extraction must still be monitored to avoid local depletion. Over the course of decades, individual wells draw down local temperatures and water levels until a new equilibrium is reached with natural flows. The three oldest sites, at Larderello, Wairakei, and the Geysers have experienced reduced output because of local depletion. Heat and water, in uncertain proportions, were extracted faster than they were replenished. If production is reduced and water is reinjected, these wells could theoretically recover their full potential. Such mitigation strategies have already been implemented at some sites. The long-term sustainability of geothermal energy has been demonstrated at the Lardarello field in Italy since 1913, at the Wairakei field in New Zealand since 1958, and at The Geysers field in California since 1960.

Falling electricity production may be boosted through drilling additional supply boreholes, as at Poihipi and Ohaaki. The Wairakei power station has been running much longer, with its first unit commissioned in November 1958, and it attained its peak generation of 173MW in 1965, but already the supply of high-pressure steam was faltering, in 1982 being derated to intermediate pressure and the station managing 157MW. Around the start of the 21st century it was managing about 150MW, then in 2005 two 8MW isopentane systems were added, boosting the station’s output by about 14MW. Detailed data are unavailable, being lost due to re-organisations. One such re-organisation in 1996 causes the absence of early data for Poihipi (started 1996), and the gap in 1996/7 for Wairakei and Ohaaki; half-hourly data for Ohaaki’s first few months of operation are also missing, as well as for most of Wairakei’s history.