Lucy in Year 10 looks at issues surrounding climate change and the damage our current ways of living are having on the planet. Might geothermal energy offer the UK, and the world, a solution for us to clean up our act?
We are in the midst of a climate crisis; the UK government has recently made a commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 to help stop further damage to the environment. The burning of fossil fuels to generate power is a significant contributor to the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, so the use of renewable energy sources is critically important to meeting this commitment to achieve net zero emissions. There are already many established sources of renewable energy, such as wind, solar and tidal power, but geothermal energy might be an unexpected solution to the UK’s problems.
Geothermal energy uses the natural heat from within the Earth’s crust to heat water and create steam. This steam then powers a turbine in a similar way to the production of energy using fossil fuels, with the key exception that the heat comes from the earth instead of from the burning of coal, oil or gas. So, like other forms of renewable energy, geothermal energy produces far less CO2 than fossil fuels do.
The key advantage geothermal energy offers over many other forms of renewable energy is consistency. Solar cells and wind turbines rely on climate and weather conditions to operate, which means that the amounts of energy produced varies and can be unreliable. Geothermal energy doesn’t have that problem. No matter what happens, a geothermal plant will always produce the same amount of energy. The problems caused by inconsistent energy provision have already been seen; only weeks after setting a new wind power generation record, a breezeless day in January 2021 resulted in a shift back to fossil fuelled power and a tenfold surge in spot energy prices.
Geothermal energy is currently in the news due to a recent announcement to build the first ever geothermal plant in the UK, in Porthtowan, Cornwall. It will produce enough energy to power 10,000 homes – enough to power almost all of Birmingham. So, why don’t we build them everywhere?
While geothermal energy does have significant benefits, it also comes with its own set of problems. The most prominent of these is the very specific characteristics of the Earth’s crust needed to be able to superheat the steam and power the turbines. As opposed to somewhere like Iceland, on the boundary of a tectonic plate, these locations are few and far between in the UK. Some will unfortunately be located in populous areas, where the negative aesthetics of a power station would outweigh its benefits. Another worrying fact about geothermal plants is that their construction, and the drilling of geothermal wells into the earth’s surface, have been the cause of several earthquakes over the past decade (5.5 magnitude earthquake in Pohang, South Korea in 2017). While this is less of a risk for the UK, being geologically more stable, it still is a factor to be considered. I would hasten to add that this risk is less than that of CO2 from fossil fuels or the toxic clean-up of a nuclear power station!
While geothermal energy plants are undoubtedly an effective and positive use of the Earth’s natural resources to create a sustainable and consistent supply of energy, the problems that their construction and capabilities raise mean that it would be impossible for them to become the sole provider of the UK’s energy. However, it is undeniable that their existence and use could aid the UK greatly in our battle against greenhouse gases and the climate crisis. While geothermal energy cannot solve the climate problem alone, it should definitely be a part of the UK’s, and the world’s, solution to the threat that is the climate crisis.
 Check out https://cornishstuff.com/2019/09/11/successful-drilling-at-uks-first-deep-geothermal-plant-in-cornwall/ to see the new Geothermal Plant take shape