Geothermal Power Plants

Posted on 30 January 2010

Geothermal power plants use heat deep in the earth for the generation of steam, which in turn power generator for the generation of electricity. Geothermal heat pumps don’t generate electricity but these are used to transfer heat from the ground to reduce energy required to heat a building.

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Working of Geothermal Power Plants

For the generation of electricity Geothermal power plants use much higher temperature deep within the earth, we can say that these power plants are much similar to coal or oil powered generators in which electricity is generated from steam driven turbines.

One of the main difference is that coal and oil powered plants burn fossil fuels to produce steam while the heat of the earth’s core is used by the geothermal power plants. Earth’s core is extremely hot and some areas are more suitable for the generation geothermal power from others depending upon that how far the surface of hot areas are located in the within the earth.

Places where high incidence of volcanoes occurs are much suitable for the production of geothermal energy. As we have heard about geysers, hot springs and volcanoes, these are the examples from in which the molten core comes close to the surface. From ancient times heat from hot springs has been used for the generation of geothermal energy.

There is a simple concept behind generation of geothermal power. To tap into a pressurized area of hot water and steam drill a hole deep into the earth and to drive a turbine for the generation of electricity we have to pipe the steam to the surface.

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Direct Steam Plants

It is the oldest type of geothermal power plants, operates as I described above. Underground collection of hot water and steam are tapped and steam used to turn turbines. The concept of generating electricity form the heat of earth is not new, a direct steam powered generator is used by Prince Piero Conti of Italy to light a few light bulbs at the steam fields of Larderello and after seven years a commercial power plant was built at the same location.

There are few potential problems of Direct steam plants which are discussed below,

  • Steam which is used for the driving of turbines may carry small amounts of mineral, which can make steam to be very corrosive to the turbine, and due to this the possibility of releasing pollutant into the air also increases.
  • One other problem is that there are limited number of locations have the geological structure which is important for the feasibility of Direct steam plants.

Other type of plants that overcome some of the problems and are widely available have developed by the engineers. Possible pollution reducing because current plants recover the condensed steam and return it to earth.

Binary power plant is the newest system and geothermal fluid passes through heat exchanger in this system. In this exchanger, the transfer of earth’s heat to another fluid circulating in a closed system takes place and this fluid vaporizes to steam, drives the turbines and then condenses to liquid, after it the cycle starts again. These type of systems avoid turbine parts to the corrosive steam and eliminates pollution virtually. We can say that, Binary systems will probably be the most common in the future.

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Present and Future of Geothermal Power Plants

Currently, there are 24 countries in the world which have geothermal generating plants, others are more likely to follow as the technology improves and the problems with oil become more apparent. The US has the highest absolute production and producing almost 3000 megawatts and this is very small according to the needs of the country. Many of the geothermal plants are in California and they only produce about 5% of the energy needed by the state. Second largest producer of geothermal energy is Philippines.

According to the estimation of Earth Policy Institute, there are at least 39 countries that meets their electric needs with the production of geothermal and many more can use geothermal as part of their energy mix. It can be concluded that Geothermal power plants are a cost effective source of electric power that are likely to become more common in the future.

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Yasir - who has written 2 posts on Renewable Energy.


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