Can We Get Geothermal Energy From Volcanoes?
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Volcanoes are some of the most impressive displays of power in nature. That power has caught the attention of some researchers as a potential source of green energy, especially as the need for alternative power sources grows. Harnessing geothermal energy from volcanoes could be a helpful way to decrease our reliance on fossil fuels.
There are roughly 1,350 potentially active volcanoes across the globe. These natural structures’ wide availability and high heat hold promise for green energy, but how would that work, and what are the advantages and disadvantages? Here’s a closer look.
How to Harness Geothermal Energy From Volcanoes
You can extract geothermal energy from volcanoes in a few different ways. The most straightforward is direct heating and cooling. In these systems, water and other fluids pick up volcanic heat underground and carry it through pipes to heat or cool an area.
Home heating and cooling alone is responsible for 441 million tons of CO2 emissions annually. While these volcano-powered heat pumps use some electricity, they need far less than other heating systems, resulting in massive emissions reductions. That’s not the only way to get power from volcanoes, either.
It’s also possible to generate electricity from volcanic energy. First, teams drill into the earth on or near volcanoes until they reach areas of high heat. Running water through these hot underground areas creates steam, which rises to the surface to spin turbines, producing electricity.
Volcanic Geothermal Energy Projects Today
These volcanic geothermal energy systems are more than just theoretical. Volcanoes already supply power across the world.
Roughly 20% of California’s renewable energy comes from one volcanic geothermal energy plant. While these turbines don’t drill into a volcano directly, they use geysers, natural hot water sources that come from underground volcanic activity. The volcanic field that powers these geysers hasn’t erupted for much of human history, but it’s active enough to supply a lot of energy.
Iceland, a nation famous for its volcanic activity, also gets much of its energy from volcanoes. This geothermal power accounts for 25% of electricity generation in the country and 66% of its overall primary energy use.
New Zealand is another country that relies on geothermal energy from volcanoes. Just one volcanic zone produces 1,005 megawatts (MW) of power, most of the nation’s geothermal energy. While the process looks much different today, New Zealand has used these geothermal power sources since before the 1870s.
Benefits of Geothermal Energy From Volcanoes
Drawing geothermal energy from volcanoes has many advantages. Here’s a glimpse at some of the most significant.
The most obvious benefit of volcanic geothermal energy is its sustainability. Generating electricity from volcanic heat or using it for direct energy doesn’t produce any greenhouse gas emissions. While it takes some electricity to run heat pumps or drill wells, if this comes from other renewable sources, volcanic power can be entirely emissions-free.
These energy sources are renewable, too. Volcanic heat is abundant across the earth, and harnessing it won’t affect global temperatures enough to make a difference. While volcanic geothermal plants do remove groundwater, they pump it back into the earth once it’s served its purpose, replenishing natural sources.
Geothermal energy from volcanoes is also reliable. Many other green power sources, like wind or solar, depend on fluctuating conditions. Changing weather and daylight will affect how much electricity these systems can produce, requiring complex battery storage to make them viable at scale. Volcanic energy doesn’t have that problem.
Volcanic zones’ heat doesn’t fluctuate like the wind or sun. These wells are deep enough underground that the earth provides enough insulation to keep high temperatures at a near constant. Consequently, power plants or buildings drawing on these energy sources can enjoy a consistent level of power, regardless of external conditions.
Another benefit of volcanic geothermal energy is its high capacity. The Geysers, the large geothermal plant in California, produces 725 MW of electricity, enough to power a city as large as San Francisco. As technology becomes more efficient, these natural energy sources could sustain even larger grids for more extended periods.
If renewables are to replace fossil fuels, they must have capacity like this. The world needs a lot of energy, and as industrial activity grows and electronics become more common, its electricity needs will likely keep rising. While technological advances will eventually reduce this demand, high-capacity energy generation is critical to sustain the transition in the meantime.
Given all of these benefits, you may wonder why harnessing geothermal energy from volcanoes isn’t more common. Part of that is simply the world’s reliance on fossil fuels, but volcanic geothermal power carries some complications, too.
One of the biggest drawbacks of all geothermal energy is its upfront costs. Digging deep enough into the earth’s crust to access the necessary heat and installing systems to capitalize on it is expensive. While electrical savings will make up for those costs over time, the initial investment may be too high for some applications.
In some situations, volcanic geothermal power plants can also damage the surrounding environment. When these facilities inject water back into the ground, it carries different properties than it did originally, which can throw off some areas’ delicate balance. While some geothermal plants, like those in Iceland, show remarkable resilience, other volcanic zones may decline over time from these changes.
There’s also a social argument against some volcanic geothermal plants. Volcanic zones and geysers in some regions are tourist attractions that people prize for their natural beauty. Installing unattractive power plants on top of them may generate social resistance.
With the Right Approach, Volcanoes Can Be Great Energy Sources
While some roadblocks remain, geothermal energy from volcanoes holds a lot of potential. With careful planning, research and a delicate approach, organizations can use volcanic systems to generate safe, clean and reliable power. As these projects grow, the world can move further away from fossil fuel-derived energy.
Volcanic geothermal energy is just one step we can take toward a greener future. Growing these systems alone isn’t enough to stop climate change in its tracks, but it could be a helpful part of the process. With more awareness of and investment in resources like this, the world can secure a healthy, sustainable future.
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About the author
Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.