Geothermal power is a natural source of power that originates inside the earth. This energy source is generated by many factors, such as the shifting of tectonic plates, the decay of radioactive minerals and elements, as well as the energy generated from solar rays continuously striking the earth’s crust.
It is important to differentiate between geothermal energy and thermal energy. Geothermal energy is power that is generated within the earth, while thermal energy is generated through the heating and acceleration of molecules, natural or otherwise. Geothermal energy can be harnessed in many ways. The most popular are geothermal heat pumps, geothermal hot water, and geothermal hot dry rock. All of these things can be harnessed through the use of geothermal plants.
Geothermal heat pumps are used at geothermal plants. They are also referred to as ground source heat pumps (GSHP). They are central heating or cooling systems that pump heat to or from the ground. Geothermal heat pumps take advantage of geothermal temperatures within the ground. This technology reduces the operational costs of heating and cooling systems, and at times these systems are combined with geo-solar systems. Geothermal heat pumps work similarly to refrigerators or air conditioners using a heat pump to force the transfer of heat. These heat pumps transfer heat from cool space to warm space. This is against the natural direction of heat flow so it requires energy. They can enhance the natural flow of heat from a warm area to a cool one.
Geothermal hot water is often referred to as a hot spring. The water is heated from a fissure in the earth’s crust. The water leaks down, becoming heated through the various layers throughout the earth. The heated water slowly rises to the surface, carrying the heated water. Hot springs have been used for centuries to create hot water for heating as well as public bath houses.
Geothermal hot dry rock does not require hydrothermal resources. Geothermal hot dry rock is most used in areas where naturally occurring water and rock porosity is sufficient to carry heat to the surface. More recently, geothermal energy has been harnessed through drilling into dry and non-porous rock. When the porosity of the rock will not allow for the heat to be harnessed high pressure cold water can be injected into the rock. This increased pressure brings the heated water back to the surface. This technique is hard on the land that the hot dry rock covers, and can also damage surrounding land.
Geothermal power is cost effective, reliable, 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.
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