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ISSUE 120 VOL 16 PUBLISHED 3/23/2007

Geothermal benefits

By April Wright
Variety Editor

Friday, March 23, 2007

As a nation, the United States is committed to reducing greenhouse gases through the use of more environmentally friendly power sources. As long as those alternative sources are ethanol and nuclear power, that is.

This week, the Department of Energy decided to cut geothermal energy research funds. Their reason? “Geothermal energy is a mature technology. Our focus is on breakthrough energy research,” said Christina Kielich, a spokeswoman for the federal office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

She’s kind of right. Geothermal energy is used in many areas of the country to generate electricity. Most of these areas are in the West, where geothermal potential is very high. But just because a technology is in use doesn't mean it can’t be improved.

In fact, a report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT] implies that we can do quite a lot to improve the efficiency and usability of our nation's resources. The report says that one area to improve upon is drilling technology. When it comes to geothermal energy, access is a big issue. Many deposits are deep underground. The report states that improved drilling technology can gain access to deeper reserves, which often have higher economic value. Improved materials will lower the cost of drilling operations.

A second area the MIT report cites for beneficial expansion is power conversion. According to the report, improving heat transfer technology for low-temperature liquids and better designing plants to handle extremely hot liquids could improve greatly the yield of geothermal energy.

Right. I’m totally convinced that geothermal energy is a mature resource that doesn’t need to be researched anymore.

According to the MIT report, if the United States put $400 million into geothermal energy over the next 15 years ($400 million total, not annually), this source could generate 100,000 megawatts of electricity. That's enough to power 80 million homes, all for less than the amount of cash it would take to build one nuclear power plant. This energy would most likely be constrained to areas in the West, but that’s still a massive number of homes to power.

On top of it all, geothermal energy is an Earth-friendly energy source. According to the Geothermal Energy Education Office, the use of geothermal energy worldwide currently saves the equivalent of five billion gallons of oil or 28 million tons of coal, preventing the pollutants from those sources from getting into our air.

Geothermal plants can emit hydrogen sulfide, which can be dangerous in large doses. However, scrubbing technologies can remove 99 percent of emissions. Comparatively, the carbon dioxide emissions for geothermal energy plants are four percent of those of fossil fuel plants.

The drawbacks to geothermal energy are few. First, the method of extracting the energy could change the permeability of the rock, changing yields over time. Secondly, it isn’t known how geothermal energy will pay off in the long run. The MIT report suggests that the most economically sound and long-lasting way to develop geothermal energy is to dig into sources more than three kilometers deep.

Given that geothermal energy has the potential to be an environmentally friendly resource that can produce a sizeable chunk of energy in this country, it looks like a pretty big mistake to stop investigating it.

Variety Editor April Wright is a sophomore from Eagan, Minn. She majors in English and in biology.

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