In recent years, we have seen geothermal energy rise in popularity around the globe, but it’s important to note that this energy source has its disadvantages.
The disadvantages of geothermal energy are that it is expensive, contributes to greenhouse gases entering our atmosphere, is location dependent, and can lead to surface instability which can cause earthquakes.
These days, renewable energy seems to be all the craze amongst environmentalists - and for good reason, as these energy sources offer the opportunity for humanity to transition from our unsustainable dependency on fossil fuels to more eco-friendly resources. Geothermal energy is not as widely adopted but it is gaining momentum on the global stage as a renewable energy contender. With that being said, while geothermal energy does present a lot of innovation and possibility, we need to make sure that we carefully weigh out all of its disadvantages before committing to it as a standard energy source. To help you understand geothermal energy further, we are going to take you through all of its disadvantages.
After decades of working as a geothermal specialist, I have had an extensive amount of experience dealing with this energy resource. My research has led me to conclude that while geothermal energy does present a lot of opportunities, it does have some disadvantages that are worth considering.
Geothermal Energy Disadvantages
The way we utilize geothermal energy is by gaining access to the heat that exists beneath the Earth’s surface. Since its discovery, we have used geothermal energy to generate electricity that is capable of powering entire cities to more modest systems that heat water for industries, businesses, and even private households.
The use of geothermal energy has been implemented by humans for hundreds of years. We began to learn how to harness and control this renewable energy source during the 1800s when we realized that we could use the steam that naturally came out of the surfaces of the Earth to create energy. Whereas the traditional use of geothermal energy has actually been utilized by humans for thousands of years. The historic use of geothermal energy can most commonly be seen used in hot pools around the globe.
These days, some countries have widely adopted the use of geothermal energy and have made it their primary energy source. This is commonly seen in nations like Iceland that have a lot of geothermal activity happening beneath their surface, which makes harnessing geothermal energy practical and affordable.
However, it is important to note that not all nations have the capability of utilizing geothermal energy. While this energy source does have a lot of innovation behind it and it does present a lot of possibilities, unfortunately, its global use comes with a lot of challenges - many of which make using it as a primary or even secondary energy source unrealistic. Let’s dive right into geothermal energy and its disadvantages.
One of the biggest disadvantages that geothermal energy presents is that it is highly dependent on location. In fact, geothermal energy is considered to be the most location-specific energy resource on Earth.
The reason that geothermal energy is so dependent on location is that it can only be harnessed in regions that have high amounts of geothermal activity, which can only be found in areas where tectonic plates meet. In addition, geothermal energy does not only require that the area has heat beneath the surface but also liquid heat that is capable of being harnessed.
These sorts of requirements can make the location of geothermal energy very selective and exclusive to only a few areas on our planet. At the moment, the nations that prosper the most from harnessing geothermal energy are:
- The United States
- New Zealand
Given that geothermal energy can only be found in these locations, in addition to a few others, it can make harnessing the power of this renewable energy resource to supply a global amount of energy to power the entire planet an impossibility.
The location dependency of geothermal energy is unfortunate considering that the amount of energy that the Earth produces beneath the surface is so abundant that it could present many possibilities for meeting global energy needs.
The bottom line is that geothermal energy is very expensive. While renewable energy providers try to praise green energy as being a cheaper alternative to fossil fuels, the reality is that these energy resources have a lot of upfront costs in order to get operations on the way.
The price tag associated with geothermal energy can be especially devastating for countries that are still developing and lack the funds and the infrastructure needed to establish this energy source in their nations.
It is estimated that it costs up to $4 million to install just a single drill for geothermal harvesting. This initial cost can be intimidating and unrealistic for countries that are highly dependent on fossil fuels as their primary energy source. Most nations that can barely afford to make this transition are faced with the challenge of choosing the health of the environment over the practicality of their current energy platform, which stabilizes their economy.
While there are many nations around the globe such as Iceland, New Zealand, and the United States that can afford to invest in geothermal energy, many nations such as Indonesia and the Philippines greatly lack the funding to harness geothermal energy.
In addition to powering cities and communities, geothermal energy can also be used to heat private households. However, even a small operation to heat a single home can be very expensive, which could result in costs as much as $30,000. This sort of expense makes geothermal energy a major disadvantage for many people - especially when you consider that developing countries could easily benefit from renewable energies such as solar at a fraction of the cost - with an easier installation process.
Many developing nations that do have access to geothermal energy still prefer to invest in solar power, as this can be achieved with much more flexibility and less financial risk. While establishing a large-scale solar farm can be quite costly, ultimately, this is not the approach that each nation needs to take to harness the power of the sun. Common citizens that reside in developing nations can invest in a very simple solar system setup that could be just a few solar panels, which can take care of their primary energy needs for an initial cost of just several hundred dollars.
We often hear of renewable energy resources being presented as totally environmentally friendly with zero ecological impact. However, this is by no means the case, as just about every renewable energy source contributes to some form of pollution on our planet - this includes geothermal energy.
While fossil fuels still produce significantly more greenhouse gases and pollution, we should consider that geothermal energy also contributes to this in some way. The pollution caused by geothermal energy is mainly in the form of greenhouse gases and not toxic pollutants, so it does not cause direct harm to humans. However, these greenhouse gases are currently responsible for the greatest challenge that humanity has ever faced - climate change.
With each passing year, we watch the climate crisis gain momentum, which is resulting in global temperatures increasing, ocean levels rising, and vital habitats being destroyed. The damaging effects of the climate crisis are not eliminated by geothermal energy, as this energy source only further contributes to the problem. While these effects are far less severe than the pollution that comes from fossil fuels, we must remember that geothermal energy is not 100% clean energy.
The infrastructure that is necessary for geothermal energy also creates pollution that is invasive to the quality of life of communities. Let’s take a look at some of the ways that geothermal energy interferes with people’s lives.
- Noise Pollution - the equipment and machinery that geothermal energy uses are not subtle and can create a substantial amount of noise. If a geothermal plant is located close to a community of people, the noise that it creates can be quite disruptive to people’s lives.
- Sight Pollution - at the end of the day, no one enjoys looking at industrial equipment and machinery within their community. This sort of infrastructure can be quite damaging to the aesthetic of the area that it is developed in - especially if the area has attractive natural qualities.
- Odor Pollution - geothermal energy power plants release a considerable amount of natural odors that exist beneath the surface of the Earth. These foul smells often spread to the nearby community and create a considerable amount of odor pollution for its citizens.
- Soil Subsidence - the equipment used for geothermal energy has been known to cause soil subsidence. This is a form of land erosion that results in natural compaction, sinkholes, and soil infertility.
Although geothermal energy is generally presented as being pollution-free, we are finding out that this is not necessarily the case. While it does not compare to the pollution caused by non-renewable energy sources, it is not 100% clean and can be invasive in people’s lives nonetheless.
A common issue that we have seen in areas that utilize geothermal energy is surface instability.
The way that we harness geothermal energy is by drilling holes deep into the surface of the Earth to release natural gases to create energy. However, this type of deep drilling has been known to cause earthquakes.
When an earthquake normally occurs, we have little to no control over its damaging effects. The best that we can do is to prepare for them by developing infrastructure that can support seismic activity. The frequency of earthquakes is considerably increased in areas that harness geothermal energy, which can increase the risk of a humanitarian crisis and economic instability.
It is worth noting that most regions that have experienced earthquakes caused by geothermal energy have not been catastrophic. Some notable earthquakes that have occurred were in places like Switzerland that saw seismic activity that reached well over 3.0 on the Richter scale.
An issue with even these small earthquakes is that they tend to be followed by additional quakes. Some regions have reported experiencing seismic activity for weeks after the initial earthquake hit. This can create a lot of stress for everyday citizens in relation to safety concerns. When these sorts of incidents occur, the operators of the geothermal power plant need to dial back their energy consumption or cut it off completely, which can create a lack of reliability for meeting energy needs.
In addition, nations that do pursue developing geothermal energy need to invest in infrastructure that can support regular seismic activity. As mentioned above, geothermal energy is expensive, which is not only due to the initial costs of establishing a plant for harnessing it, but also the cost of infrastructure to support the potential earthquakes that it will cause.
This means that many nations need to completely redesign and reinvest in their infrastructure in order to safely operate their geothermal power plants. While many developing nations can afford to invest in infrastructure, most poorer countries do not have this luxury and either need to risk financial and economic instability or the lives of their citizens.
About THE AUTHOR
James Parker has a Masters degree in Sustainability with a focus on land management, permaculture and regenerative agriculture. He also has experience managing sustainability projects, and is passionate about conservation and sustainability.Read More About James Parker