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Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences explained why the U.S. spends tens of millions of dollars on geothermal energy research

© Форпост Северо-Запад / Павел Долганов

Sergey Alexeenko, member of the Presidium of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, expert in thermophysics, energy and energy saving, gave an act lecture about geothermal energy for students and graduate students of St. Petersburg Mining University. During his presentation he called it a paradox that on the one hand almost all the experts talk about the tremendous prospects of using thermal energy of the Earth interior, but on the other hand nobody really knows anything about it. Moreover, the likelihood of scientific progress in this direction in the strategic plans of the development of the Russian fuel and energy complex is practically not taken into account.

But how is this possible? And why do the Americans invest a lot of money into geothermal power engineering? Forpost cites excerpts from a presentation by Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences Sergey Alexeenko, which provide an answer to these and other questions.

Trends in global energy development

Sergey Alekseenko: We should not think that tomorrow there will be a dramatic energy transition that will change the entire technological structure and send the demand for oil, gas, and coal to a peak. That's not going to happen. No matter what they say about climate change, humanity will still continue to consume fossil fuels, because they have high energy efficiency compared to many alternative sources.

This is why humanity simply must introduce the best available technologies at traditional energy facilities, including innovations capable of capturing greenhouse gases. Moreover, we need to start this work as soon as possible - thermal power plants will not disappear, and if we delude ourselves with illusions about a quick energy transition, we will never reduce the technogenic impact on nature.

актовый зал
© Форпост Северо-Запад / Павел Долганов

At the same time, it is also necessary to develop renewable energy sources and methods for storing the energy they produce, because otherwise their efficiency will remain at an extremely low level in the future. As for geothermal energy, the realization of its potential can, without any exaggeration, forever provide mankind with both thermal and electrical energy. For the USA, for example, taking into account their current consumption, there is enough deep-sea heat for at least 20 thousand years ahead.

Moreover, radioactive processes in the bowels of our planet continue, the heat is still accumulated there, that is, in fact, we are talking about inexhaustible and environmentally friendly energy source, which can be obtained anywhere in the world. The essence of the technology, if you describe it in simple words, is as follows. There is an injection well, where cold water is pumped under pressure, and a production well, where steam or hot water is pumped out, which are heated in the depths of the Earth.

Then they are used to generate electricity or heat by standard methods. Moreover, unlike the generation of solar panels or wind turbines, the operation of which depends on the vagaries of the weather, here there is a continuous flow. In other words, consumers do not have to wait for the calm to turn on the TV. The grid always receives the same amount of electricity.

Hydrogeothermal energy

Sergey Alexeenko: Geothermal energy is divided into two types. The first uses the deep heat of dry rocks as a source of energy, and the second uses hot underground sources heated by volcanic eruptions, or geysers. It is the latter method that underlies the operation of the vast majority of modern geothermal power plants.

© Форпост Северо-Запад / Павел Долганов

For the first time electricity was obtained in this way back in 1904. This happened in Italy. And in 1962, in Northern California, on the basis of a large geothermal water deposit, the first hydroelectric power plant was built. This did not happen by chance in America - the hot streams there are very close to the surface of the Earth. They circulate at a depth of 10 kilometers, and their temperature exceeds 250 degrees Celsius. Actually, this is why the United States today has the most progress in the development of this industry compared to other countries.

The installed capacity of all existing power plants in the world right now is 15 GW, which is very low, close to zero percent. In the United States, it is 3.5 GW, and its contribution to the energy balance is less than 0.5%, also very small. However, in Iceland, where volcanoes are very active, almost 100% of heat and 30% of electricity is generated by geothermal energy. In Russia, in Kamchatka and the Kuril Islands there are 4 such plants. Their capacity is 82 MW.

Petrothermal energy

Sergey Alexeenko: As I said before, the potential of geothermal energy is limitless, but it will be possible to unlock it, in my opinion, precisely through a gradual transition from hot springs to the heat of dry rocks located at depths of three to ten kilometers. Their temperature reaches 350 degrees Celsius. The problem is that this inexhaustible source of energy can be exploited only if it is located in permeable rocks. But basalt usually lies at this depth, so an artificial permeable reservoir must be created, and this is one of the most serious problems.

актовый зал
© Форпост Северо-Запад / Павел Долганов

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky first suggested the idea of using deep heat back in 1892. And Academician Vladimir Obruchev described the methodology of this process in his book "Heat Mine". It was possible to put their ideas into practice in France, because there are permeable rocks in the depths, and technically it turned out to be possible. But scientists of Los Alamos in 1970 managed to create an artificial reservoir by means of hydraulic fracturing, which confirmed the prospect of obtaining petrothermal energy on an industrial scale.


Sergey Alexeenko: The achievements of the U.S. in this field clearly demonstrate that geothermal energy is not fantasy. And their plans for the future are simply astonishing. For example, the Americans expect to reduce the cost of one kilowatt-hour generated by deep heat to 6 cents by 2030, which is very cheap. And by 2050 - to bring the total installed capacity of geothermal power plants in the country to 60 GW. If we transfer these figures to Russia's energy balance, with these figures we would cover almost a quarter of our current electricity consumption. This is incredibly high!

Thermal capacity of hydroelectric power plants, according to this project, in 30 years should reach 320 GW in the U.S. At the same time all of Russia consumes only 170 GW of heat per year. Obviously, if we start to seriously deal with this issue, we will be able to cover all of our energy needs in the foreseeable future. But this, of course, will require huge investments. For example, in the U.S., in 2020, $70 million was spent on dedicated scientific research alone.

It is no accident that I am giving this lecture at St. Petersburg Mining University. First of all, it is one of the best, if not the best university in Russia, and second, its scientists were among the originators of petrothermal energy. Today, Rector Vladimir Litvinenko and I have reached a consensus: we need to resume joint research in this field and start training competent specialists who will be able to implement such promising ideas for all mankind in practice.