Most power plants need steam to generate electricity. The steam rotates a turbine that activates a generator, which produces electricity. Many power plants still use fossil fuels to boil water for steam. Geothermal power plants, however, use steam produced from reservoirs of hot water found a couple of miles or more below the Earth's surface. There are three types of geothermal power plants: dry steam, flash steam, and binary cycle.
Dry steam power plants draw from underground resources of steam. The steam is piped directly from underground wells to the power plant, where it is directed into a turbine/generator unit. There are only two known underground resources of steam in the United States: The Geysers in northern California and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, where there's a well-known geyser called Old Faithful. Since Yellowstone is protected from development, the only dry steam plants in the country are at The Geysers.
Flash steam power plants are the most common. They use geothermal reservoirs of water with temperatures greater than 360°F (182°C). This very hot water flows up through wells in the ground under its own pressure. As it flows upward, the pressure decreases and some of the hot water boils into steam. The steam is then separated from the water and used to power a turbine/generator. Any leftover water and condensed steam are injected back into the reservoir, making this a sustainable resource.
Binary cycle power plants operate on water at lower temperatures of about 225°-360°F (107°-182°C). These plants use the heat from the hot water to boil a working fluid, usually an organic compound with a low boiling point. The working fluid is vaporized in a heat exchanger and used to turn a turbine. The water is then injected back into the ground to be reheated. The water and the working fluid are kept separated during the whole process, so there are little or no air emissions.
Small-scale geothermal power plants (under 5 megawatts) have the potential for widespread application in rural areas, possibly even as distributed energy resources. Distributed energy resources refer to a variety of small, modular power-generating technologies that can be combined to improve the operation of the electricity delivery system.
In the United States, most geothermal reservoirs are located in the western states, Alaska, and Hawaii.