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It's A Gray Area: Geothermal hot in sustainable world

August 28, 2010|By James P. Gray

Much of Iceland sits on active volcanic zones. In fact, that is why the country is known as the land of fire and ice. In those volcanic areas, when ground water flows down into the cracks of the Earth's surface and encounters hot or molten rock, it either turns into hot water that can be harvested to heat buildings, or steam that can be used to generate electricity in a fairly cheap and clean manner. This is so successful that Icelanders consider geothermal energy and fish to be their two largest natural resources.

From what we can gather, California's Paleo-Indians were using the steam and hot water of the geysers in the Mayacamas Mountains in Sonoma County more than 10,000 years ago to keep warm, and geothermal pools have been a part of Icelandic culture from the time of their first settlers.

The first prototype of a geothermal power plant was built in Tuscany, Italy, in 1905, and that plant went into full production in 1911. Tuscany's facility continued to be the only geothermal power plant in the world until New Zealand built another one in 1958. Since that time, geothermal plants were brought on line in Mexico in 1959, the United States in 1960, Japan in 1966, Siberia in 1967, and Iceland in 1969.

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Now many other countries have built their own plants as well, including El Salvador, China, Tunisia, Indonesia and Kenya. All of this has resulted in a 20% increase of global geothermal power in just the last five years, and it now accounts for about 5% of the world's total generation of electricity. All of this gives rise to some people saying that geothermal energy is really steaming.

The Earth's core is found about 4,000 miles below the surface, and the temperatures there are estimated to be about 7,200 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat in the core originally came from the molten rock that was formed when Earth was first created, but now the heat is sustained by the decay of radioactive particles.

Fortunately, scientists believe that this generation of extreme heat will continue for billions of years into the future, so for all practical purposes, geothermal is considered to be a never-ending source of energy. That also means that the entire world resource base of geothermal energy is greater than the resource bases of coal, oil, natural gas and uranium combined.

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