Geothermal energy erupting with new possibilities

Scientists are looking further and further into geothermal energy as an alternative source of energy. (Elizabeth Ellis/Flickr, Creative Commons)

While the most atrocious nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency may have just been confirmed, our environment might not be completely doomed. Over the past few weeks, environmental scientists took a major step forward in their search for clean and sustainable energy, and their answer may lie with some of the oldest structures on Earth: volcanoes. While everyone has an image in their minds of what volcanoes are, tall deadly towers of rock that spew lava, this is not quite accurate. In truth, while volcanoes can sometimes be dangerous, they usually are not. In fact, they are proving extremely useful to scientists through the means of geothermal energy.

The volcano of interest here specifically is located on the Reykjanes Peninsula in Iceland, and has been the focus of environmental scientists since their project began in August of 2016. The task, which was finally completed on Jan. 25, was to drill down into the volcano to a depth of nearly three miles, or 4.8 kilometers, to allow researchers to get a rare up-close look at the formations, and hopefully continue on their quest to utilize volcanoes as a source of clean energy.

The type of sustainable energy that scientists are exploring with this volcano is geothermal energy, which is actually currently used all over the world on a much smaller scale. Geothermal energy is a form of heat energy that, as its name would suggest, utilizes the heat that is naturally produced by the Earth. To capture this heat energy, scientists have developed a system that utilizes Earth’s naturally occurring “hydrothermal convection” systems. This essentially requires finding where cold water enters Earth’s crust, heating it up, and capturing the steam that is created. This steam can then be used to power electric generators. After its use, the water can then be returned to its source to increase longevity of the source.

The process of utilizing volcanoes as geothermal energy resources is fairly similar, but does differ in some ways. Instead of only digging about 10 feet below the Earth’s surface as is done for typical geothermal systems, when implementing this technique on volcanic land researchers dig anywhere from three to five miles below the surface. The process of collecting the energy from these rigs is slightly different from smaller-scale systems as well. While the steps are similar as far as the fact that water is utilized, that is about where the similarities end. To harness energy from the well drilled into the Reykjanes volcano, researchers will be pouring water into the well which will create “supercritical water,” which is created when water meets molten rock. This supercritical water is neither a liquid or a gas, and in this state it can “create up to 10 times the power output of other geothermal sources."

Due to the amazing capacity of this supercritical water, the successful use of this technology could greatly reduce our world’s dependence on oil and other non-sustainable energy alternatives. As of now, eight states in the United States utilize geothermal energy, and it accounts for approximately seven percent of the energy in California. While this is an admirable number, we can most definitely do better, and this technology can help us to do so. According to the National Energy Authority of Iceland, about 25 percent of the nation’s electricity comes from geothermal sources and 90 percent of houses are heated by these methods. If Iceland can manage to enforce this change and become one of the most sustainable countries in the world, why can’t we do the same?

Not only would powering our houses through a volcano’s energy fulfill every little kid’s dream, it would also be an environmentally sustainable source of power. With the status of our planet consistently declining each year, it is time that we seriously consider our alternative energy sources so that we can begin to make a positive change to the world we live in. Having the ability to tap into a clean, natural and plentiful energy source such as geothermal energy is not just a blessing, it is what this planet is in desperate need of if we hope to improve the state of our environment.


Emma Hungaski is an opinion contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at emma.hungaski@uconn.edu.