The Promise Of Geothermal Energy | Unlimited, Forever & Free
I am a little sceptical of the geothermal promise.
Our Earth is essentially – and don’t think about it too much – one big, giant and large, oversized nuclear reactor. The quantifiably stupid amount of heat created at our Earth’s fertile core is actually, and perhaps to your surprise, the energy which proverbially ‘keeps the lights on’ upstairs, once we discount our ongoing cahoots with the sun.
There is such sufficient vitamins and minerals at the Earth’s core that our latest and greatest scientists estimate that it should remain molten and continue to produce energy for as much as 91,000,000,000 years. A functionally infinite amount of time.
Well – this is wonderful news isn’t it! And this is the promise of geothermal.
Seems that all we need to do to access functionally infinite amounts of electricity-generating energy is dig down deep into our Mother Earth to extract pockets of this bountifully infinite heat. It all sounds so simple, right?
Not So Fast
Although yes, in theory tapping this heat is a fool’s errand, in practicality we come up against some very real, but nonetheless solvable limitations of engineering.
Much of the Earth’s rock is quartz in some form or another. Sand, as I have documented here before, is largely of quartz fame. And as such, just 15-20km under our feet lays bountiful shelves of this beautifully rich, abundant and hot quartz.
The Idea Of Geothermal Is As Follows
We take a shelf of quartz, positioned 15-20-25-30km (there is variability afterall) under the surface. Say – the giant slab under Mexico that Robert Freidland, of mining billionaire fame, mentioned during his interview with Erik Townsend.
We position ourselves above this rich, oozing quartz which has existed a geological lifetime at a sticky 300°C, mas o menos. We tunnel down and across into the rock (a slight pickle of engineering). We blast water, and presumably some sand as well, into the drilled away quartz and as consequence produce an abundance of clean, green and very mean steam.
Steam… this is all we need. It might not have crossed your mind before, but I was kind of knocked off my chair and caught very off guard when I was hit with this realisation. Burning coal, rotating a wind turbine, capturing the Niagara Fall – these processes just work to create friction in a revolving drum. That friction creates electricity.
It is real first principles stuff. How can one most efficiently heat a furnace? That is the question the energy problem boils down too.
And as such, our giant quartz reserves are being (for all intents and purposes) eternally heated by our Earth’s nutritious core. This means that no matter how much steam we extract from the rock on one day, she will be back to work tomorrow, fully charged… and ready to go again.
The Geothermal Promise
And thus, this is the geothermal promise.
More energy than we need. At no cost to the environment. And at little cost to our wallets.
Or in other words.
The biggest, most prosperous and most life changing innovation to grace humanity since fire.
I agree – yes – it’s a little bit grandiose isn’t it… and also perhaps too good to be true?
Have some humility geothermal… but also, please be everything you promise.
Geothermal & Climate Change
As we heat coal, we release that incredibly dense storage of carbon into our atmosphere. As we combust oil in an engine, we again, release that nutritiously dense carbon storage into the atmosphere.
As battery tech continues along the lines of linear progression towards ever greater and more efficient transferences of energy, the only energy we are going to need to worry about (at scale) is electricity production.
If geothermal can take care of our electrical needs. Then we will be able to do away with the the majority of carbon dense (coal, oil, gas) that is currently converted from solid to gas at scale.
As I have documented at length, food and agriculture are alongside transport as the worlds most egregious emitters of CO2. But should we be able to produce geothermal electricity to usurp all other uses apart from food and agriculture – then we would also change the the food game as well.
Good For Tesla, Good For Batteries, Good For Mother Earth
One of the international gripes facing Tesla, and all other EV or battery businesses alike is the cost efficiency of thier produts.
What good is this green tech if no-one can afford it? A very reasonable question. But more importantly, what good is green tech if it is but the shiny veneer that sustains our environment. Depending on certain variables, you could well be driving around a battery-powered chassis of environmental degradation. Not the slick rick steed bolstering your social capital.
Much of the electricity generated for your Tesla might either come from the other end of coal plant, or even worse, from the environmental decimation of a copper mine. Sure, once you are driving around on the road, recharging from your Tesla sunroof things are hunky-dory. You can feel good about yourself and the impact you are having on the environment.
But if you are plugging your Tesla into the wall every night, and drawing electricity from the coal-generated plant down the road then you are about as clean as the Catholic Church.
Geothermal has the power to disrupt it all. Create genuinely clean electricity, which as I am sure you can imagine, has the power to fundamentally shift entire industries. From mining to agriculture, to transport.
A Sceptical Response To The Geothermal Promise
There is too much hype, too many promises, and not enough ‘buts’ when it comes to geothermal.
The promise is overwhelmingly positive and optimistic. Only a sadist would wish upon an inverted cross that the geothermal promise is built on a house of cards. And I am no sadist. I am intensely optimistic… but I am also sceptical. Geothermal strikes me as one of those ideas that is just a little bit too good to be true.
So can we consider the following…
- What threats do we pose to the environment by cracking and drilling through rock, which is by its very definition foundational?
- Where is the talk about the ‘other gases‘ that will rise with the steam to heat our furnace? We have seen through fracking more than our fair share of unintended chemical leakages and cracked gas deposits. As we drill deeper and deeper into the planet I am reminded of Carl Jung in an entirely different context… ‘beware of the deep’ or even Gandalf foreshadowing the depths ever more ominously… ‘far, far below the deepest delving of the dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things’.
In my estimation these two questions of sceptiscm are the most important and most prescient of mind.
Sure there are smaller details concerning the geopolitics of this huuugely transformational technology, but those are really the details of any global shift, and not in themselves a reason to not do something. There are similar concerns surrounding the displacement of jobs and work in industries a geothermal revolution would replace, but again, not in itself a reason to not do something.
I want to hear more from the geoligists.
What are the implications for drilling down deeper than we have ever drilled before? Can one piece of quartz be endlessly tapped? From our best estimation of the second, third and fourth order effects, what does releasing this energy mean for our core?
Questions along these lines are where my sceptical gaze is fixed.
Fracking Really Frucked Things For Some – Would Geothermal Do The Same?
I know – it’s an unfair question.
Until it happens we cannot know. This is foundational to my worldview, while prediction is an absolutely worthwhile pursuit, it is in most cases, rather folly.
What do the geologists say about the accompanying gases released alongside our life giving steam? What sleeping giants exist at the depths?
Where We Are Now | Geothermal Energy
We are currently still in the innovative phase of this technology.
We cannot drill into 300°C for the distances required. The drills we have for oil mining are other worldly and in themselves incredible feats of engineering, but for our geothermal purposes. Not good enough.
This is the great pursuit as things stand. There are companies out there like ipulse, who are pioneering the drilling technology, but it is absolutely without doubt that once things start to heat up, they will quickly come to a boil.
This could be the defining technology of our species. I know… quite hyperbolic to assert, but nonetheless there is an element of truth to it.
Boundless, cheap energy. It is the stuff of the garden of Eden. There is not a predictive worldview that can measure how the world would change should the geothermal promise deliver.
It is the most exciting sunrise we have to look forward to. It has all the potential to transform the world.
Will it? Only time will tell.
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