Geothermal: a warm feeling for the holiday

Current energy prices have given a boost to a long-used but often marginal form of energy: hot water. Specifically, hot water beneath the earth's surface.
Written by Harry Fuller, Contributor

Current energy prices have given a boost to a long-used but often marginal form of energy: hot water. Specifically, hot water beneath the earth's surface. Geothermal. And several countries are moving to take advantage of whatever geothermal energy they may have. Leader in the field is Iceland, of course. Should have been named Steamland. Most homes there are heated by geothermally heated water.

New Zealand also has considerable geothermal resources and uses them for electricity and even to dry wood in kilns. They also have experienced a common problem in geothermal output: as the steam is pumped off, colder water seeps into the geothermal wells from outside the hot zone.

Japan is another user of geothermal energy. Not just for electricity, Japan gets the prize for most bizarre geothermal application: alligator farming in warm water. Hand-bags anyone?

The U.S., Australia and the Philippines are among nations that have geothermal energy available for commercial use. Recently the American Bureau of Land Management has auctioned off geothermal leases for 74 sites.

Leader in the American geothermal field is Ormat, a publicly-owned company with almost 270,000 acres under lease. Most of this land is in the western U.S. Ormat went public last month, selling three million shares. The firm's based in Rano. Not that geothermal looks like that big a gamble right now.

Calpine is another major geothermal player in U.S. They operate nineteen steam-generating plants in a geyser rich area north of San Francisco and claim to produce 40% of all geothermal energy in the U.S. If you want to go visit, here's the link you need. In Australia the government is subsidizing geothermal development. The projects are planned for South Australia and Tasmania.

In the Philippines a sale of geothermal property by the government to a private utility has created a political bruhaha. The auction promises to provide over one billion dollars to the cash-strapped national government there.

You clever reader, you've been following along on the map and noted that most of this geothermal is found along the Pacific Ocean's infamous earthquake and fault-line zone that also produces all those Ring-of-Fire volcanoes.

Two more items of note: the world's most famous geothermal zone is NOT being developed. That would be Yellowstone National Park. One well just outside the park began to take water from the Mammoth Hot Springs underground resevoir there and was shut down.

Finally, what role can geothermal play in time? Some estimate it would never be more than 1% of all American energy use. We'll never have geothermal planes or trains. Here's a long-winded, but interesting, discussion among "Wall Street Journal" readers had about energy sources in thirty years. The money folks are calling the shots so take a look.

And have a warm Thanksgiving with all the steaming stuffing you can eat.

Photo credit: a Yellowstone Geyser, courtesy National Park Service.

Editorial standards