Active volcanoes are proving to be a hot commodity in the global race to convert to renewable energy as regions around the world residing near these natural wonders work to harness their heat.
Geothermal energy, the process of using heat from the earth’s inner cores to create power, is one of the most sustainable forms of energy, experts told ABC News. The technology works by pushing hot water from the deposits of volcanoes and geysers to the surface, which then turns to steam due to the reduced pressure.
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The steam is then pushed into a turbine, which then generates electricity.
There are virtually no carbon emissions from this process once the infrastructure is in place, aside from the diesel pump needed to bring the water and steam to the surface, Pete Stelling, a retired professor of geology at the University, told ABC News. of Western Washington. .
“It’s considered the most sustainable energy source,” Amanda Kolker, a geothermal energy program manager at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, told ABC News. “It’s also a relatively invisible renewable source, both figuratively and metaphorically, because it’s literally underground.”
If there are leaks in the pipes, the escaping substance is simply water or steam, and there is no hazardous waste, Jackie Caplan-Auerbach, a professor of geology at Western Washington University, told ABC News.
Other than the land use and environmental damage caused by the initial construction, there are no other hazards, Caplan-Auerbach.
“There are no refineries that need to be built or shipped,” he said. “There is no gas station on the corner that you need to develop to sell the product.”
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However, the warnings about geothermal energy are cumbersome, Stelling said.
The technology is only available in select locations around the world. What makes a region ideal for harnessing geothermal energy is the availability of something “really hot” near the surface.
The vast majority are near active volcanoes, where an underground magma chamber heats the water around them, simply because they’re the easiest places to find, Stelling said. Dormant volcanoes and geysers may also be options, she added.
Residents and businesses that can benefit from geothermal power must reside near the plant, since the power cannot be transported, Stelling said. Instead, power is placed directly into the electrical grid.
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In addition to determining whether fractures in the ground are large enough to allow water to flow through them, geologists must also consider the inherent risk of building a power plant near an active volcano and whether a possible eruption could harm the plant, Caplan,” said Auerbach.
The biggest obstacle to installing geothermal production plants is cost, Stelling said. Construction crews must drill several kilometers into the earth and draw hot water from open fractures in the ground. The turbine will then run on the steam and produce electricity.
A construction project aimed at bringing geothermal power to Unalaska, a city in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, is expected to cost around $235 million to build a plant powered by the Makushin volcano.
“The initial seed investment is quite high,” Stelling said. “But once you get the equipment in place and set up that geothermal field, it works really well. And it’s really cheap.”
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Introducing geothermal power to a community has the ability to lower energy costs for residents and businesses, especially in Alaska, which is so dependent on imported oil for heat and electricity, Stelling said. The wind in the Aleutians is so strong that it “just blows up the turbines,” making wind production impossible, he added.
Geothermal power currently generates about 3.7 gigawatts of electricity in the United States, according to the Department of Energy. A new analysis showed that geothermal power could provide 90 gigawatts of “firm and flexible power” to the US grid by 2050.
Many of those who live near geothermal power plants may not know that their cities are powered by heat from the ground, Kolker said. For example, San Francisco at one point got a third of its energy from Geysers, which is the largest geothermal complex in the world. The Geysers, located in the Mayacamas Mountains 72 miles north of the city, contain 18 geothermal power plants that draw steam from more than 350 wells.
The US Department of Energy is currently investigating the extent of geographic limitations that geothermal power presents, Kolker said.
“There are efforts to try to expand the geographic possibilities of geothermal using less conventional approaches,” he said.
The Department of Energy on Wednesday announced funding of up to $74 million for up to seven pilot projects that will test the efficiency and scalability of upgraded geothermal systems.
“Advances in enhanced geothermal systems will help introduce geothermal power to regions where, until recently, use of this renewable energy source was thought to be impossible,” said US Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm, in a statement. “These pilot demonstrations will help us realize the enormous potential of the heat beneath our feet to bring clean, renewable energy to millions of Americans.”
Here’s how heat from a volcano can be used to power an entire city originally appeared on abcnews.go.com