Geothermal Power: Facts About Natural Energy Sources

Geothermal power uses heat energy that can be harnessed to provide the electrical needs of our planet using renewable natural resources.
By Barry Fishler
September/October 1971
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Aerial view of two harnessed geysers thirty miles from Iceland's capital city of Reykjavik. The water in the foreground is boiling.
PHOTO: ANDREW SCHNEIDER


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Modern man—that's you and me — is power hungry and, in particular, we just can't seem to get enough electricity. On the other hand, we now know that generating all the electrical power we use — especially when we burn fossil fuels such as coal to do — it is one of today's prime sources of air pollution . . . and that puts us between a rock and a hard spot. How are we going to have power without making the air unbreathable . . . and do we really need to harness all that energy in the first place? 

Many of the environmental groups make a justifiably strong case against our steadily-increasing demands for electricity to run such jimcracks as powered toothbrushes. Still and all, it will probably be some time before we collectively limit our consumption of electrical energy to essentials only . . . which puts us right back in the big middle of the problem. How are we going to generate all that electricity without continuing to futz up the air, land and water?

Well, there are ways and some of them have been around longer than man himself. One which has been largely ignored in this country, although used fairly extensively in some other parts of the world, involves the harnessing of geothermal energy.

Geothermal power — sometimes called magma power — is heat energy taken from the planet itself. As you may know, the core of the earth is molten rock — or magma — and only the thin outer crust of our planet is cool. On the average, for every mile we bore into the earth, the temperature climbs about 113 degrees Fahrenheit. In some areas this temperature rise can be as much as 720° F for each mile we drill and, in the Imperial Valley of California, a jump in temperature of 3,632°F per mile has been recorded in test wells.

Now heat is energy but — to make that energy readily available for the generation of electricity — we need one more ingredient: water. Heat plus water equals steam . . . and, if the ground directly above a hot spot on the earth's crust happens to be porous and filled with water, There will be created a natural boiler. And if this boiler is sealed over by a tight layer of clay, we have — ready made — a tremendous reserve of useable power. That doesn't happen often but it happens often enough and this is exactly the situation that exists in California's Imperial Valley.

Tests there have shown that geothermal wells sunk into the huge natural boiler under the Valley will tap enough live steam to drive generators capable of supplying two-thirds of all California's electrical needs for years and years to come. Furthermore, the steam brought to the surface from that gigantic pressure cooker contains only a two to three percent mineral content and — by desalting the water which condenses from the steam — approximately 5 to 7 million acre feet of water per year will be added to the state's supply.

Other tests indicate that more water from underground sources will flow into the natural boiler beneath Imperial Valley as fast as the steam is piped out . . . so it would seem that the process will perpetuate itself for many years. It would also seem that if harnessed — thus one natural generating station could supply a significant amount of fresh water and two-thirds of the electricity needed by all of California for decades.

But how do we know it'll work? Well, of course, we won't know for certain until we try. On the other hand, 17 steam wells were sunk in Mexico eight years ago and they've been spouting thousands of barrels of hot water and steam at pressures reaching 1000 lbs. per square inch and temperatures of 750°F ever since. Some geothermal wells at Larderello, Italy have been driving electrical generators since 1904 and New Zealand has harnessed magma-power for decades.

The Soviet Union is currently doing some heavy research in the field and Japan — which has to import most of its vitally-needed coal and oil — is expected to tap natural steam during the next decade for the generation of a major portion of its electricity.

Perhaps the best example, though, of a country making a real effort to satisfy its power needs with geothermal energy is little Iceland. True, Iceland does enjoy some unique advantages that make magma-power more than usually obvious and accessible to its citizens . . . but there's no reason to let that stop us from duplicating its geothermal success whenever possible.

By the way, Iceland is not covered with ice. As a matter of fact — located on one of the earth's youngest land masses and perched on an extremely thin section of the planet's crust — the country literally boils. Huge plains of volcanic dust and boulders cover the surface of much of the island and steaming geysers and scalding springs are common landmarks in many areas of its largely treeless landscape.

There is definitely an inverse ratio between the unfavored countryside of Iceland and the level-headed common sense of its inhabitants, however, because when the people there decided to make themselves a little progress they didn't blindly set out cutting and burning and waste-making to do it. Instead, they did the sensible thing (remember when we used to be that way ourselves?) and looked at the earth around them. "Hummm," they said, "if the water and steam churning away beneath us is already boiling hot or hotter . . . and there's so much of it that it bubbles all over the landscape . . . why not put it to use'?"

So they did.

Take Reykjavik, for instance. Half of Iceland's 200,000 people live in or near this capital city and — through the courtesy of Mother Earth and the District Heating System — -every last person enjoys all the hot water he wants. The whole town, you see, is plumbed right into the earth's core. Turn on any local equivalent of an "H" faucet and you'll have as much natural hot water as you want for as long as you want it. (You'll be recycling rather than using up resources, too. The hot water of Iceland is rainwater which has been heated as it seeps into the island's volcanic rocks.)

Reykjavik's city heating plant works the same way. Natural steam and hot water from below the surface is simply run through the pipes of the town which, in turn, are buried in the concrete sidewalks. In addition to supplying such obvious creature comforts as warmth, this set-up makes for some rather picturesque situations. For instance, if it's very cold in Reykjavik (not a common occurrence, due to geothermal activity and the proximity of the Gulf Stream), you can actually see steam rising from the walks.

Snow, of course, melts as soon as it hits the pavement.

The creative Icelanders haven't stopped with heated foot paths, either. A plant at Lake Myvatn, near the Arctic Circle, stands as operating proof that industry doesn't have to pollute. There, natural steam is used to evaporate diatomite (which is exported to Europe for use in filters) from the floor of the lake. The operation has been so successful some experts predict that, eventually, all of Iceland's industry will run on a combination of geothermal and water power.

For that matter, one major Icelandic industry has already largely converted to magma-power. Since the country is — agriculturally speaking — far from gifted, the Icelanders have evolved what amounts to indoor truck farming in huge greenhouses. And those greenhouses, as might be expected, are mostly heated by natural steam. Since much of the flowers, fruit and vegetables produced on these indoor farms is "organic" or naturally grown . . . that's about as natural as you can get (and at the sixty-fourth parallel, to boot!)

Such greenhouses are the major industry of the city of Hverigerdi and the Nature Cure Sanatorium — also located at Hverigerdi — depends heavily on their year-round supply of naturally-grown produce. Doctors in all parts of Iceland regularly send patients to this sanatorium for post-operative care, general physical rehabilitation and just plain relaxation.

A pleasure widely enjoyed all over Iceland is year-round swimming in naturally heated water and guests at the Nature Cure Sanatorium luxuriate in a refinement of this geothermal gift: three pools (warm, hot and hotter) held at constant temperature by mixing cooler water with the magma-heated variety. Hot mud baths are also available at the center.

Sanatorium guests sample still another use for geothermal heat when dough is placed in a can, sealed, put in a net and lowered into the mouth of an active steam geyser. When the container is pulled up 24 hours later, they have steam-baked organic bread'.

Such random examples of Iceland's praiseworthy use of her geothermal resources are all very well, of course, but they tell only fragments of the whole story. And that story is so obvious that it's sometimes easy to overlook. I know that — even after several days in the country — I still didn't realize just how intelligently and widely the people of Iceland have substituted clean magma power for polluting energy sources until I left Hverigerdi's health center and returned to bustling Reykjavik Suddenly, I realized that I hadn't started feeling rot ten again upon my return to "civilization". Thanks to geothermal power, the air in Iceland's capital is as sweet as that of the countryside.

And that, to me, sums up what Iceland is all about . . . a people who have built the most meager of natural resources into a nation of which nature herself must be proud.

How tragic it will be if we — who have so much more than Iceland — disregard this lesson. How tragic if we insist on plundering Alaska for petroleum, spreading oil slicks down the western seaboard, strip mining New Mexico and choking the air of the southwest . . . to run electric toothbrushes in Los Angeles. How tragic if we refuse to tap the clean geothermal power in California's Imperial Valley and wind up . . . in the end . . . with nothing.


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