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Harnessing the Heat Beneath our Feet

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Energy Global,

In these challenging and unpredictable times – climate change, rising energy costs, financial instability, and the uncertainty of the geopolitical landscape – the energy the world uses and the security around this has become ever more important.

Geothermal as an energy source has been available for centuries, and is the only true baseload energy. Available everywhere and anywhere – and with 99% of the Earth’s volume having temperatures exceeding 1000°C – geothermal is a baseload energy, meaning it provides 24/7 energy and can be viewed as one giant battery with enough clean renewable energy to help meet the 2050 Paris Agreement’s net zero targets, and to potentially last billions of years.

What is geothermal energy, and how does it fit into the energy mix?

To meet the Paris Agreement targets and set a global warming target of 1.5°C, global energy use must transition from oil and gas to cleaner and more sustainable energy sources.

Realistically, no one source of renewable energy can completely replace the current energy supply from fossil fuels such as oil and gas – and it is a blend of all energy sources that will enable this transition to happen. But, what needs to be grasped is that geothermal energy is always available, unlike solar and wind (which are discontinuous and require ancillary systems to operate), or biomass and hydrogen (which require feed stock from fossil fuel or cultivated source, in turn having a damaging environmental impact). Furthermore, a key benefit of geothermal is that it provides heat directly.

Geothermal energy is heat created from radioactive decay penetrating through the sub-surface of the earth.

Different geothermal technologies with distinct levels of maturity exist. Technology for direct use including district heating, geothermal heat pumps, greenhouses, and other such applications are widely used and already considered mature. Technology for electricity generation from hydrothermal reservoirs has been used commercially for more than 100 years, and is completely reliable. Yet, despite the staggering amount of geothermal energy contained within the Earth’s sub-surface, only 16 GWe of energy is currently being commercially produced from this source globally.

Many of the world’s continents are already utilising geothermal energy to meet their energy needs and there is, undoubtedly, huge potential in this sector; however, the UK and the world needs to ramp up use of this viable and natural energy resource in order to remain serious about hitting the global environmental targets.

How can the transition be achieved?

There are two strands to energy transition:

  • The movement of energy resourcing from non-renewable energy resources to renewable energy solutions.
  • The repurposing of oil and gas wells for geothermal, and the utilisation of an already highly-skilled existing oil and gas work force who can seamlessly make the transition into the geothermal energy space.

There are currently an estimated >20 million oil and gas wells across the world, with an estimated 3.2 million located in the US. Many of these are end of life and non-producing. Acknowledging there are some differences between oil and gas and geothermal energy production – geothermal requires deeper accessibility and functions at higher temperatures – the expertise and services from the oil and gas sector can access it easily.

Couple this with the existence of an already skilled work force, in the hundreds of thousands of people who work in the global oil and gas sector, and the geothermal energy industry has a ready-made, hugely skilled work base that already uses much of the technology and work practices that would seamlessly transition into this renewable energy space.

To continue reading this article from Energy Global’s Winter 2022 issue, click here.

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