The news last week that Googleis investing more than $10m in geothermal energy could be written off as more random speculating by the bored billionaires but it deserves a bit more credence than that.
A recent study from MIT, The Future of Geothermal Energy, makes for very interesting reading and goes a long way to explain why Google is throwing money into research in this area – and it isn't just for the environmental tax breaks.
“Geothermal energy from Enhanced Geothermal Systems represents a large, indigenous resource that can provide base-load electric power and heat at a level that can have a major impact on the United States, while incurring minimal environmental impacts. With a reasonable investment in R&D, EGS could provide 100 GW or more of cost-competitive generating capacity in the next 50 years,” the report states. “Further, EGS provides a secure source of power for the long term that would help protect America against economic instabilities resulting from fuel price fluctuations or supply disruptions.”
And that 100GWs could be gotten for about the same price as one new coal powered station according to the MIT study:
“This amount is approximately equivalent to the total R&D investment made in the past 30 years to EGS internationally, which is still less than the cost of a single, new-generation, clean-coal power plant.”
Sounds like a win-win, as marketing buffoons like to say, and for Google a company that sited a major datacentre at The Dalles in Oregon, to make use of energy generated by the damming of the Columbia river, geothermal energy is a no-brainer – provided it actually lives up to the claims made for it.
The technology is not without its downsides and risks however. While most companies are fairly happy with the idea of citing a datacentre near a dam, areas that are ripe for geothermal exploration, also happen to be areas with seismic and potentially volcanic activity – with Hawaii, Iceland and However according to the MIT study, harnessing the energy has become a lot safer than it once was.
“In the early days of geothermal energy exploitation, well blowouts were a fairly common occurrence; but, nowadays, the use of sophisticated and fast-acting blowout preventers have practically eliminated this potentially life- threatening problem.”
Other issues to consider are that enhanced geothermal energy plant isn't as efficient as fossil fuel plant when it comes to converting energy into electricity as the temperatures harvestable from GES systems are a lot lower than the fossil fuels. Also there are problems with heat pollution, basically hot water leaching into the environment that can impact wildlife, to consider too. But all that aside, given the rise and rise of cloud computing, it's clear that Google is focusing on the silver lining when it comes to geothermal energy.