Image Source: Wikimedia Commons. By: Llywrch.

Towns and cities around the globe have embraced the use of renewable energy. Most of the time, you’ll hear about people switching to solar or wind power, but the Oregon town of Klamath Falls took the road less traveled. This town of 20,000 is one of the few that uses geothermal power—for just about everything imaginable.

The geothermal power of Klamath Falls is used to heat buildings, brew house kettles, and greenhouses. It’s kept their sidewalks warm since the early ‘90s and provides lighting for the local college campus. They are also looking to expand their geothermal use beyond heat and towards electricity, too, with plans to build a generator similar to the one at the Oregon Institute of Technology—all thanks to an $816,000 stimulus grant.

Needless to say, the town has been using geothermal energy for quite some time—and it wouldn’t hurt for others to take up the initiative to do the same. The use of geothermal energy is practically unknown—it only makes up 0.5% of the United States’ entire energy production. However, it has extreme potential. A 2007 conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimated that EGS (Enhanced Geothermal Systems) could produce 100 gigawatts of electricity by 2050. That amount of output is equal to 1,000 coal-fired or nuclear power plants; not to mention there is the potential to generate a huge portion of the country’s energy needs for centuries to come.

Although there is huge potential for the use of geothermal energy, it also has its drawbacks. For one, it can be difficult to find the 3 natural components needed to use geothermal energy all in one place. Those 3 things are: water, hot rock close to the surface, and cracks in the rock that can act as a reservoir. Luckily, this is where the idea of EGS comes in.

One way EGS can be used is by drilling thousands of feet into the earth until you reach hot rock. Water is then pumped down to the rock in order to create cracks and reservoirs. Once the cracks are created, more water can be sent down one area and it will come up through another well as hot water or steam. This hot water or steam will cause a turbine to spin, thus generating electricity. This particular system could be used anywhere there are hot rocks close enough to the surface; however, there is one major obstacle to get past first. This EGS process also has the potential to create earthquakes.

Image Source: Flickr. By: Gamene.

When you pump water into the ground to create cracks in the hot rocks below, it causes the earth to move. This movement is referred to as “induced seismicity” by scientists. One example of an EGS project gone wrong is the Basel, Switzerland incident, where earthquakes happened because of a geothermal project in the area. However, not all is lost. Seismologist, Ernie Majer, explained that as long as the geothermal wells are not near any major earthquake faults, “it is not damaging, but very upsetting to the community that lives literally on top of it.”

Geothermal energy also produces a rather small carbon footprint, which has gained it the attention of the Obama administration. At least 123 projects in 38 states are currently being funded. The projects range from power plants to home heating pumps to exploration and underground mapping. The biggest focus at the moment is a $25 million project conducted by AltaRock Energy, Inc. They are attempting to prove that EGS can produce economic electricity without producing earthquakes. Their demonstration site is located near the Newberry National Volcanic Monument in Oregon.

AltraRock’s CEO, Don O’Shei, remarked:

“If EGS becomes economical, it will really be a game-changer. Even though it is relatively high risk in terms of the money to develop that kind of technology under the ground ($6 million to $20 million for a well that could prove worthless), it is very important.”

Even if the project fails, there is still the success story of Klamath Falls. This town has more than 600 geothermal wells heating their homes, schools and even a hospital. Oh, and the wells also spin the turbine of a small power plant. The amusing thing is, according to city manager, Jeff Ball:

“We didn’t know it was green. It just made sense.”

It certainly does make sense. The only thing that doesn’t at this point is why more people aren’t taking up the renewable energy initiative; not only because it’s the green thing to do, but simply because it makes sense.