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Geothermal Power Plant

What is a Geothermal Power Plant?

A geothermal power plant captures and uses the heat from the earth to drive one or more steam turbines that turn one or more  synchronous generators, which generate "carbon free energy" and "pollution free power."  

There are three geothermal power plant technologies being used to convert hydrothermal fluids to electricity. The conversion technologies are dry steam, flash, and binary cycle. The type of conversion used depends on the state of the fluid (whether steam or water) and its temperature. Dry steam power plants systems were the first type of geothermal power generation plants built. They use the steam from the geothermal reservoir as it comes from wells, and route it directly through turbine/generator units to produce electricity. Flash steam plants are the most common type of geothermal power generation plants in operation today. They use water at temperatures greater than 360°F (182°C) that is pumped under high pressure to the generation equipment at the surface. Binary cycle geothermal power generation plants differ from Dry Steam and Flash Steam systems in that the water or steam from the geothermal reservoir never comes in contact with the turbine/generator units.

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What is the Organic Rankine Cycle?

An Organic Rankine Cycle uses a heated chemical instead of steam as found in the Rankine Cycle. Chemicals used in the Organic Rankine Cycle include freon, butane, propane, ammonia, and the new environmentally-friendly" refrigerants. 

A Rankine cycle is a closed circuit steam cycle. (see for more information).

Why use a chemical refrigerant? 

A refrigerant boils at a temperature below the temperature of frozen ice. Solar heat, for example, of only 150 degrees Fahrenheit from a typical rooftop solar hot water heater, will furiously boil a refrigerant. The resulting high-pressure refrigerant vapor is then piped to an organic Rankine cycle engine. 

Why is it called "organic"? 

"Organic" is a term used in chemistry to describe a class of chemicals that includes Freon and most of the other common refrigerants.

Types of Geothermal Power Plants

Dry Steam Power Plants

Photo of dry steam power plants.

Dry steam power plants in California.

Steam plants use hydrothermal fluids that are primarily steam. The steam goes directly to a turbine, which drives a generator that produces electricity. The steam eliminates the need to burn fossil fuels to run the turbine. (Also eliminating the need to transport and store fuels!) This is the oldest type of geothermal power plant. It was first used at Lardarello in Italy in 1904, and is still very effective. Steam technology is used today at The Geysers in northern California, the world's largest single source of geothermal power. These plants emit only excess steam and very minor amounts of gases.

Illustration of a Dry Steam Power Plant - Geothermal steam comes up from the reservoir through a production well.  The steam spins a turbine, which in turn spins a generator that creates electricity.  Excess steam condenses to water, which is put back into the reservoir via an injection well.

Flash Steam Power Plants

Hydrothermal fluids above 360°F (182°C) can be used in flash plants to make electricity. Fluid is sprayed into a tank held at a much lower pressure than the fluid, causing some of the fluid to rapidly vaporize, or "flash." The vapor then drives a turbine, which drives a generator. If any liquid remains in the tank, it can be flashed again in a second tank to extract even more energy.

Illustration of a Flash Steam Power Plant - Pressurized geothermal hot water comes up from the reservoir through a production well.  The water enters a flash tank where it depressurizes and flashes to steam.  The steam then spins the turbine, which in turn spins a geneator that creates electricity.  Excess steam condenses to water, which is put back into the reservoir via an injection well.

Binary-Cycle Power Plants

Most geothermal areas contain moderate-temperature water (below 400°F). Energy is extracted from these fluids in binary-cycle power plants. Hot geothermal fluid and a secondary (hence, "binary") fluid with a much lower boiling point than water pass through a heat exchanger. Heat from the geothermal fluid causes the secondary fluid to flash to vapor, which then drives the turbines. Because this is a closed-loop system, virtually nothing is emitted to the atmosphere. Moderate-temperature water is by far the more common geothermal resource, and most geothermal power plants in the future will be binary-cycle plants.

Illustration of a Binary Cycle Power Plant - Illustration of a binary-cycle power plant.  Geothermal hot water comes up from the reservoir through a production well.  The hot water passes by a heat exchanger that is connected to a tank containing a secondary hydrocarbon fluid.  The hot water heats the fluid, which turns to vapor.  The vapor spins a turbine, which in turn spins a generator that creates electricity.  The hot water continues back into the reservoir via an injection well.  This closed-loop system produces no emissions.

The Future of Geothermal Electricity

Steam and hot water reservoirs are just a small part of the geothermal resource. The Earth's magma and hot dry rock will provide cheap, clean, and almost unlimited energy as soon as we develop the technology to use them. In the meantime, because they're so abundant, moderate-temperature sites running binary-cycle power plants will be the most common electricity producers.

Before geothermal electricity can be considered a key element of the U.S. energy infrastructure, it must become cost-competitive with traditional forms of energy. The U.S. Department of Energy is working with the geothermal industry to achieve $0.03 to $0.05 per kilowatt-hour. We believe the result will be about 15,000 megawatts of new capacity within the next decade.

Some of the above information provided with our thanks by the Department of Energy.


Carbon Dioxide Emissions  
Since the Year 1750



World CO2 since 1750 (cubic feet)

The carbon clock tracks total Carbon Dioxide Emissions in metric tons since 1750.  Since 1750, humans have generated over 5 trillion tons of Carbon Dioxide Emissions which have been "dumped" into the Earth's atmosphere. How could this amount of Carbon Dioxide Emissions - over time - not have some sort of an affect on the climate and on the environment, its oceans, marine life, not to mention people, plants and animals living on land?  

Roughly half of these Carbon Dioxide Emissions have ended up in the oceans where it is beginning to damage the coral reefs and also cause the oceans to turn acid. The other half is still in the atmosphere and causing climate change and global warming according to many leading scientists and climate researchers.

Each pound of Carbon Dioxide ("CO2") takes up as much space as 3 people, averaging 170 pounds each. 

The formula (which should be good for a year or two) is:
C(t) = 2.58 ×1012 + 1240×t, where t is seconds since the start of 2007.

C is tonnes (metric tons) of Carbon Dioxide Emissions.

2205 x C gives pounds of Carbon Dioxide Emissions.

That comes to over 43 billion tons/year or over 86 trillion pounds/year.

Carbon dioxide is made up from 1 carbon atom with 2 oxygen atoms, or simply, "CO2."

Carbon has relative weight 12 and Oxygen 16.  Therefore, it takes only 12 pounds of carbon to make 12+16+16 = 44 pounds of Carbon Dioxide (CO2).  Carbon Dioxide Emissions have caused CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere to recently reach 392 ppm - over 100 ppm - which is higher than pre-industrial revolution levels that were at 280 ppm.


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According to R. James Woolsey, for Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, “The basic insight is to realize that global warming, the geopolitics of oil, and warfare in the Persian Gulf are not separate problems — they are aspects of a single problem, the West’s dependence on oil.”


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