Geothermal Energy Shakes Environmentalists

Causing earthquakes is OK if it's for green power?

We're all familiar with the fact that the ecological folk want us to stop using coal and oil for power and switch to renewable energy sources to Save the World.  One of their favorite alternate energy sources turns out to be geothermal power.

The idea is to drill a well down far enough to find hot rocks; you may have to go down several miles.  You pump cold water down the well under high pressure so that it shatters the hot rocks.  The water seeps into the cracks and comes back as steam which can drive a turbine.

Getting hotter makes the water expand, of course, which makes the cracks get bigger.  Extract the energy to make the water colder, do it again, and you get more or less free energy.  An eco's dream, right?

Well, not quite.  Each crack in the rock can be thought of as a mini-earthquake.  The water expanding in the cracks acts as a lubricant which makes it easier for rocks to slide past each other, which is just what an earthquake is.

When you take energy out of the rocks, they get cooler which makes them shrink.  Heat flows to them from other places underground which makes them expand again.  All this splitting and churning makes a mockery of the phrase "solid as a rock."

According to "Preventing Man-Made Earthquakes" on the Discovery channel, geothermal energy sources cause earthquakes:

Back in June, the New York Times covered the story of a geothermal power plant in Basel, Switzerland that appear to be responsible for a magnitude 3.4 earthquake in 2006.  The quake did some minor damage, and scared the bejesus out of local townsfolk. ...

Using some of the latest in earthquake monitoring technology, researchers believe they can predict when a plant's activity is pushing the rock's toward a big quake.  Before things get too dangerous, plant operators can scale back operations, allowing stress in the rocks to be released gradually.

The thought of triggering earthquakes in our search for renewable energy seems pretty terrifying.  But every form of 'clean energy' has its risks -- wind turbines catch flak for killing birds and bats, nuclear power plants have exceedingly hazardous waste, even solar energy installations can muck up local ecosystems. [emphasis added]

At last, someone admits that all forms of renewable energy carry risks.  That's progress.

The trick through all of this is going to be bringing impact and risk of damaging quakes down to a minimum.  If we can do that, geothermal energy should be around for a long time. [emphasis added]

Notice carefully the statement here, and the implication.  The Discovery Channel's politically-correct scriptwriters are giving geothermal energy what amounts to a free pass by ecologists' standards.  One would normally expect the idea of using an energy source which can cause earthquakes to cause environmentalists to run around screaming with their hair on fire.

But, quoth the Discovery Channel, not to worry!  So long as the engineers minimize the risk of damaging quakes, it's OK to use an inherently dangerous energy source.

What a remarkable breakthrough of common sense!  Now if they'd only take that attitude towards nuclear power, we'd all be better off - including the flowers and trees and chirping birds who won't have the breathe noxious emissions from power sources which, unlike nuclear plants, emit smog.  There are very few places in the US where geothermal power is practical, but a nuke plant, in contrast, can go nearly anywhere.

Is a touch of consistent common sense too much to ask?

Kermit Frosch is a guest writer for  Read other articles by Kermit Frosch or other articles on Environment.
Reader Comments
Ok, I've been trying to find the link, but only a few days ago I read about a project in Iceland to sequester carbon released as a by-product of geothermal steam turbine power generation. How nice. It turns out that there is a LOT of CO2 down there, and sending water down to turn into steam brings it up and releases it into the atmosphere. So much of it that they actually need to sequester it, so it is't a negligible quantity. So much for CO2 neutral power-source.
September 9, 2009 12:39 PM
Saving the world turns out to be a lot tougher than Al Gore thinks it is...
September 9, 2009 9:09 PM
As ever this is why we must pro sue all possibilities to a better tomorrow, government mandated solutions very rarely (never?) produce the optimum result.
September 12, 2009 10:32 AM
Renewable energy seems to be less and less good all the time!

Geothermal Project in California Is Shut Down
After safety concerns, the company in charge of a project to extract renewable energy from deep bedrock has informed federal officials that the project will be abandoned.
December 12, 2009 6:30 PM
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