This week, quirky Icelandic singer Björk made headlines, but not for wearing another swan dress to the Oscars — rather, the songstress was caught up in an imbroglio about geothermal energy.
Geothermal energy is the rather less-sexy cleantech sister to solar and wind. Geothermal harnesses energy from deep within the earth — in essence, the volcanic energy created below the earth’s surface. There are two main ways to harness geothermal: either by drilling for “dry steam” in the ground, or, more commonly, by harvesting hot water trapped underground that is then used to generate steam that powers turbines.
In the “Venus as a Boy” singer’s case, she accused Canadian company Magma Energy’s CEO, Ross Beaty, of draining Iceland’s geothermal resources, seemingly implying that geothermal is, in fact, not a renewable resource.
“It lasts about 50 years,” Björk reportedly told Maclean Magazine. “Geothermal plants work similarly to mines, you drill and then there is only a limited amount down there. When Magma’s current 65-year deal is over, the hole will be empty.”
But Maclean retracted Björk’s statements and revised the story on its website after Magma threatened a libel lawsuit based on her comments that Ross Beaty’s companies, namely, Pan American Silver, had broken laws in South America. But the question still remains: Was she right about the geothermal stuff?
GreenBeat went to the experts and asked. So, is geothermal renewable or not?
“If you manage it well, it will be operating indefinitely. It’s not like an oilfield where at some point there is no more oil,” said Peter Asmus, Pike Research analyst and author of two books on renewable energies.
Asmus cited the largest geothermal complex in the world, The Geysers, as an example of how things can go wrong. In that case, too many companies were trying to harvest steam without coordinating with each other, and it became a situation like “too many straws pulling from the same pool,” Asumus said. Calpine has since taken over the entire facility, and local governmental stakeholders united to pump in wastewater to recharge and stabilize the steam coming out.
The same can go for the steam-harvest form of geothermal — if companies don’t inject the steam back into the ground after they take it out and use it to heat water, then the resource could run out or become increasingly difficult to harvest.
“It’s a resource that can be renewable if it’s well managed. If you just extract energy and don’t worry about reinjecting or renewing, you can use it all up,” said John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies.
So it appears that geothermal is, in fact, renewable — but with caveats. It’s unclear whether Björk felt the geothermal resources in Iceland were being managed in an unsustainable way — or whether she misunderstood the concept of geothermal entirely.
Geothermal has one key advantage over wind and solar in that it can run 24/7 and thus produce more power. But geothermal isn’t available everywhere — it’s mostly in areas with a lot of volcanic activity below the surface, like Iceland, Southeast Asia, and the West Coast of the U.S., such as in the Salton Sea facilities in southern California.
It’s hard to be the ugly stepsister, too. Geothermal may well have attracted the ire of Björk and, at times, other environmentalists, because it’s a process that looks so similar to oil or coal mining, rife with heavy industrial equipment and drilling, Asmus said.
“Geothermal is not visible and when it is, it looks like an industrial power plant. It doesn’t distinguish itself by its looks as green,” Asmus said.
If looks are the issue, then perhaps geothermal companies should reserve a few dollars for better PR. Perhaps an envoy to Iceland, for starters?
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