Geothermally heated waters allow alligators to thrive on a farm in Colorado, where temperatures can drop below freezing. Credit: Warren GretzWhen a person takes a hot bath, the heat from the water will usually warm up the entire bathroom. Geothermal reservoirs of hot water, which are found a couple of miles or more beneath the Earth’s surface, can also be used to provide heat directly. This is called the direct use of geothermal energy.
Geothermal direct use dates back thousands of years, when people began using hot springs for bathing, cooking food, and loosening feathers and skin from game. Today, hot springs are still used as spas. But there are now more sophisticated ways of using this geothermal resource.
In modern direct-use systems, a well is drilled into a geothermal reservoir to provide a steady stream of hot water. The water is brought up through the well, and a mechanical system – piping, a heat exchanger, and controls – delivers the heat directly for its intended use. A disposal system then either injects the cooled water underground or disposes of it on the surface.
Geothermal hot water can be used for many applications that require heat. Its current uses include heating buildings (either individually or whole towns), raising plants in greenhouses, drying crops, heating water at fish farms, and several industrial processes, such as pasteurizing milk. With some applications, researchers are exploring ways to effectively use the geothermal fluid for generating electricity as well.In the United States, most geothermal reservoirs are located in the western states, Alaska, and Hawaii.