Geothermal energy is considered that which comes from the Earth. If that’s the case, one could say that geothermal technology has been in effect since prehistoric times, when cavemen scooped up molten lava to fire their hot tubs. Actual evidence of ancestors using geothermal energy comes in the form of hot spring baths that were popular since Paleolithic times and for space heating which was first incorporated by Ancient Romans. Today the warmth of the Earth’s surface is being used as a sustainable resource to provide electricity and heat to homes and with the push to ‘Go Green’ the technology looks to only expand. Here’s a brief history of geothermal technology thus far:
1800-1900 – Making Use of Natural Resources…Whatever They Are
As European settlers first started moving West across the continent, geothermal springs often dictated the areas where they would settle. With little known about the technologies or science behind them, the settlers often unintentionally dubbed these spring areas as some portal opening up from hell. Either way, the warm water and vitality that the springs provided was a welcome relief to the weary travelers and was even put into commercial use in 1930 in the newly founded Hot Springs, Arkansas where settlers paid $1 for use of three baths.
In 1850 the Geysers, an area of hot springs north of what is now San Francisco, was developed into a spa and hotel which entertained guests such as U.S Grant, Mark Twain, and Teddy Roosevelt. Homes are eventually built near the spring areas to take advantage of the natural geothermal heat and in the late 1890’s Boise, Idaho residents finally benefit from having water from the springs piped to their homes, which became the first district heating system.
1900-1950 Geothermal Power For The Masses
The early 1900’s focused on using geothermal technologies in more large scale projects whereas up until now they had been used for recreational or mostly individualized instances. It didn’t take long either as in 1902 Prince Piero Ginori Conti, a local businessman, invented the first geothermal power plant in Italy. The United States got their first geothermal power plant in 1922 after John D. Grant successfully tapped into a well to generate electricity. The discovery had a correlating effect for Grant as he used steam from the first plant to create a second one, steam from the second plant to create a third one and so on. The electricity produced is only 250 kilowatts which is barely enough to light buildings and streets in the area and the plants eventually shut down.
1930 was an innovative time as the first commercial geothermal greenhouse is put into effect and a resident used the first downhole heat exchanger to warm his house. A DHE is installed into a bored out hole in the Earth to draw out heat and there are more than 500 in use today. For the better part of the 1900’s geothermal technologies were strictly used on the West Coast of the United States but that changed in 1948 when Robert C. Webber, a professor at Ohio State, developed and built the first ground source heat pump for a residential setting. That same year the first commercial use of a groundwater heat pump was put into use in Oregon.
1950-2000 Even More Large Scale Operations
In 1960 geothermal technology evolved into its largest use yet with Pacific Gas & Electric creating a turbine that generates 11 megawatts of net power that would eventually run without incident for over 30 years. In 1970 a council was formed to encourage people to start harnessing the power of the sustainable geothermal technologies. A Geothermal Steam Act was unveiled that let the government lease public land for geothermal exploration and development. In the late 70’s geothermal energy was first used in a crop-drying plant and a hot dry rock plant eventually generated electricity in 1980.
In 1989 a hybrid plant was developed using both the heat and methane from a geopressured resource. In 1994 two initiatives were passed that coincided with being more aware about pollutants to Earth. The ordinances encourage companies and private sects to develop geothermal technologies to generate power and to utilize the Earth for heat pumps.
2000-2010 – The Paperwork of Geothermal Technologies
While there is still a lot that needs to be learned from the benefits of using geothermal heating, many of the methods are already in place to harvest these resources. Most of the early part of the 2000’s has been spent enticing companies and residents to use geothermal practices in their everyday actions. A number of groups have been developed to identify the barriers that are keeping people from going geothermal and how they can create more incentives to make it worth their while. Energy policies have been changed to ensure loans to companies that guarantee the use of geothermal technologies.
2011-2014 – Efforts Bear Fruit
The efforts of the past 10 years, while producing minimal new geothermal technologies has led to an increase in the use across North America. Geothermal capacity production is at an all-time high and research grants have successfully stimulated power from new or abandoned areas such as the Enhanced Geothermal Systems field demonstration project that was able to create 5 megawatts of steam production from an abandoned area of the Geysers. Expectations are that steam sources can create up to 100 GW of power or more in the future.
The hopes for the future are that we utilize the geothermal resources that exist literally right underneath us into their maximum potential. Once we become more sustainable by harnessing steam and heat from the Earth’s core we’ll lessen the load on grids and essentially slow down our carbon footprint. As the technologies are fine-tuned they’ll become more affordable and increased government grants will make it more enticing for citizens to take action, as will lower utility bills and a more conscience effort to protect the world in which we live in.
I hope you enjoyed this article on the history of geothermal technology.