Power and heating plants
Three types of power plants are used to generate power from geothermal energy: dry steam, flash, and binary. Dry steam plants take steam out of fractures in the ground and use it to directly drive a turbine that spins a generator. Flash plants take hot water, usually at temperatures over 200°C, out of the ground, and allows it to boil as it rises to the surface then separates the steam phase in steam/water separators and then runs the steam through a turbine. In binary plants, the hot water flows through heat exchangers, boiling an organic fluid that spins the turbine. The condensed steam and remaining geothermal fluid from all three types of plants are injected back into the hot rock to pick up more heat. This is why geothermal energy is viewed as sustainable. The heat of the earth is so vast that there is no way to remove more than a small fraction even if most of the world’s energy needs came from geothermal sources.
Although geothermal sites are capable of providing heat for many decades, eventually specific locations may cool down. It is likely that in these locations, the system was designed too large for the site, since there is only so much energy that can be stored and replenished in a given volume of earth. Some interpret this as meaning a specific geothermal location can undergo depletion, and question whether geothermal energy is truly renewable. Although geothermal sites are capable of providing heat for many decades, eventually they are depleted as the ground cools. The government of Iceland states It should be stressed that the geothermal resource is not strictly renewable in the same sense as the hydro resource. It estimates that Iceland’s geothermal energy could provide 1700 MW for over 100 years, compared to the current production of 140 MW.
By the end of 2005 worldwide use of geothermal energy for electricity had reached 9.3 GWs, with an additional 28 GW used directly for heating. If heat recovered by ground source heat pumps is included, the non-electric use of geothermal energy is estimated at more than 100 GWt (gigawatts of thermal power) and is used commercially in over 70 countries.
During 2005 contracts were placed for an additional 0.5 GW of capacity in the United States, while there were also plants under construction in 11 other countries
The largest dry steam field in the world is The Geysers, about 90 miles (145 km) north of San Francisco. The Geysers began in 1960 which has 1360 MW of installed capacity and produces about 1000 MW net. Calpine Corporation now owns 19 of the 21 plants in The Geysers and is currently the United States’ largest producer of renewable geothermal energy. The other two plants are owned jointly by the Northern California Power Agency and Santa Clara Electric. Since the activities of one geothermal plant affects those nearby, the consolidation plant ownership at The Geysers has been beneficial because the plants operate cooperatively instead of in their own short-term interest. The Geysers is now recharged by injecting treated sewage effluent from the City of Santa Rosa and the Lake County sewage treatment plant. This sewage effluent used to be dumped into rivers and streams and is now piped to the geothermal field where it replenishes the steam produced for power generation.
Another major geothermal area is located in south central California, on the southeast side of the Salton Sea, near the cities of Niland and Calipatria, California. As of 2001, there were 15 geothermal plants producing electricity in the area. CalEnergy owns about half of them and the rest are owned by various companies. Combined the plants produce about 570 megawatts.
The Basin and Range geologic province in Nevada, southeastern Oregon, southwestern Idaho, Arizona and western Utah is now an area of rapid geothermal development. Several small power plants were built during the late 1980s during times of high power prices. Rising energy costs have spurred new development. Plants in Nevada at Steamboat near Reno, Brady/Desert Peak, Dixie Valley, Soda Lake, Stillwater and Beowawe now produce about 235 MW. New projects are under development across the state.
Geothermal power is very cost-effective in the Rift area of Africa. Kenya’s KenGen has built two plants, Olkaria I (45 MW) and Olkaria II (65 MW), with a third private plant Olkaria III (48 MW) run by geothermal specialist Ormat. Plans are to increase production capacity by another 576 MW by 2017, covering 25% of Kenya’s electricity needs, and correspondingly reducing dependency on imported oil.
Geothermal power is generated in over 20 countries around the world including Iceland (producing 26.5% of its electricity from geothermal sources in 2006), the United States, Italy, France, New Zealand, Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Russia, the Philippines (production output of 1931MW (2nd to US, 27% of electricity), Indonesia, the People’s Republic of China and Japan. Canada’s government (which officially notes some 30,000 earth-heat installations for providing space heating to Canadian residential and commercial buildings) reports a test geothermal-electrical site in the Meager Mountain–Pebble Creek area of British Columbia, where a 100 MW facility could be developed.