Geothermal Energy History and Development

About the history and development of geothermal energy taken from the heat of the earth's core as an atlernative energy source.



Geothermal energy stems from the natural heat of Mother Earth, whose molten core is estimated to be a seething 7200 deg. F. This heat radiates toward the planet surface at an average worldwide rate of 1.5 calories per centimeter per second, or, viewed from our perspective, the earth's heat increases an average of 16 deg. F for each 1,000 ft. one descends through the outer crust.

While this steady source of heat promises to be a valuable energy source in the future, the most readily available forms of geothermal energy are pockets of hot water and steam trapped near the surface. These reservoirs are usually found in areas of past volcanic activity, and while many may be manifested by hot springs, geysers, and steam vents, others exhibit no surface signs.

The full story of humankind's first harnessing of geothermal energy is truly lost in antiquity. Bathing pools heated by hot springs seem to have been one of Homo sapiens's earliest luxuries. The first industrial use of the earth's energy began near Pisa, Italy in the late 18th century, when steam from natural vents and drilled holes was used in the extraction of boric acid from the hot pools that are now known as the Larderello fields. In 1904 Prince Piero Conti, owner of the fields, decided to end his long-standing dispute with the local electric utility by attaching a generator to a natural-steam-driven engine. The success of this experiment led to the installation, in 1913, of the first geothermal power plant, with a capacity of 250 kilowatts. By 1975 the Larderello fields were capable of producing 405 megawatts of power.

Worldwide, the Soviet Union, Iceland, and Hungary were other geothermal pioneers, and in the 1950s New Zealand began constructing a network of geothermal electric power plants. Hot well water has been used since the 1890s to heat some buildings in Boise, Ida., and more recently in other cities in Oregon and California. The only geothermal power plant in the U.S. is also the world's largest. Located in northern California, the Geysers energy field produces over 500 megawatts of electricity--enough to satisfy the energy demands of a city of 500,000. The Geysers' owners are also big-time: Magma Power, Union Oil, and the Thermal Power Company, with Pacific Gas and Electric buying the steam for electricity generation. Another California geothermal reservoir in the Imperial Valley has been estimated to hold a potential 30,000 megawatts of power.

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