The Earth comes to us with a safe and clean nuclear power plant built in that can provide all of the energy we need. We learned how to tap this geothermal energy decades ago, yet we still seem to prefer gathering fuel and burning it for virtually all of our power needs. Fuel gathering seems to be a deep human instinct that overpowers our logical thinking. Even now, when the earth’s climate is threatened and health problems from fuel burning are killing us, we cling to this fuel-gathering obsession.
Heat is continually and safely generated inside the earth’s rocks by decay of Uranium, Thorium and other isotopes in the rocks. These rocks are so hot that we need only drill a hole through the outer crust and send water down it to boil that water and make steam. If we drill another hole nearby, steam will gush forth. Steam is what we use to drive turbines in fueled power plants to generate almost all of our electrical power.
However, man prefers to complicate things so we spend billions to build atomic power plants where we can localize the atomic reaction in a reactor vessel. We go to great expense to dig up rocks and refine out the pure Uranium so we can carefully ship it to to the reactor. After the reaction has boiled all the water it can, we store the dangerous residue nearby with the hope that we will someday find a safe place to hide it.
An even more popular way to boil water with fuel is to blast the tops off of mountains and then dig out the carbon that was sequestered by nature eons ago. We then crush and wash this carbon and store the poisonous residue in ponds. We hope to find a way to safely dispose of this waste someday too, but the rest of the poison, the sulfur, mercury, and heavy and radioactive metals fly out of the smokestack when we burn the coal to boil water. Every ton of carbon we burn unites with oxygen atoms from the air to go up the stack as 3.7 tons of CO2. Since this CO2 has been causing nasty climate problems, we are working on a way to hide it in underground caverns. Unfortunately hiding this much CO2 costs a lot of money so we’re spending $407 million next year hoping for a breakthrough idea.
Clearly we love to gather fuel because, though we can boil all the water we want for free using the earth’s geothermal heat, we spent virtually nothing on geothermal research last year and plan to spend only $30 million next year. It seems that our $2 billion in subsidies to fuel interests last year paid for a lot of lobbying and influence. We need to start in a new direction in our energy policy but can’t seem to escape the past. Subsidies are often self-perpetuating.
The cost of a geothermal power plant is mostly in the exploration and drilling costs and research could reduce these costs considerably. EGS technology makes geothermal power practical in areas like the Eastern United States, where natural hot springs are rare. Over the life of a fueled power plant, fuel and pollution control costs will more than erase the cost premium of building a geothermal plant. Both Coal and Uranium costs have been skyrocketing. Health costs, storm damage and environmental destruction are all real but hidden costs of fuel burning. Geothermal heat is a gift from the earth that is ours for the taking, yet the politics of subsidy-preservation have doomed us to ignore our gift.
Thomas R. Blakeslee is president of The Clearlight Foundation, a non-profit organization that invests in renewable energy and other socially useful companies and issues cash grants to individuals who are working effectively for change.