Geothermal Power: Facts About Natural Energy Sources

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PHOTO: ANDREW SCHNEIDER
Aerial view of two harnessed geysers thirty miles from Iceland's capital city of Reykjavik. The water in the foreground is boiling.

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.