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Geothermal Energy: Is It the New Frontier in Latin America?

First Posted: Jul 28, 2014 07:30 AM EDT
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Enhanced data, a drop in costs and increased demand for electricity has provoked many countries to reconsider geothermal as an energy source.

The World Energy Outlook said in 2011, 1 percent of the world's electric power came from geothermal energy, now it is 4-5 percent. There are 700 geothermal projects under development in 76 countries. Large projects are planned for East Africa, Indonesia, with increasing interest being shown in South and Central American countries like Argentina, Chile, Columbia, Ecuador, Honduras and Mexico.

Geothermal accesses the earth's internal heat, making use of the stable 50-60 degree Fahrenheit heat below the earth surface. In winter, through a system buried beneath the ground, heat can be transferred from into buildings, and in summer, the system can be reversed to transfer the building heat down into the ground.

On an industrial level, geothermal power plants drill down 1,260 feet to make use of groundwater, or if at a sufficiently high temperature, steam, around tectonic or volcanic activity. Drilling wells pump water to the surface to be used in geothermal power plants where it is converted into electricity through a geothermal turbine.

One of the impediments to developing geothermal was lack of data. The oil and gas boom in hydraulic fracturing had led to the availability of more data on temperature and water underground, and the hydraulic wells once exhausted for their oil and gas supply are being considered for conversion to geothermal with the right conditions, according to The New York Times.

Chile, Argentina, Columbia and Honduras have significant amounts of geothermal potential, with Chile actively developing 50 early-stage projects and prospects, according to the 2014 Annual U.S. and Global Geothermal Power Production Report. The report also said Mexico passed legislation at the start of 2014 opening the electricity market to private investors which many see as creating markets for geothermal.

In 2013, New York's City Council passed a bill to study geothermal energy for homes and business throughout the city. 

"Unlike solar or wind, geothermal is a consistent source of energy. No matter what's happening on the surface, the energy stored just under our feet will be available to provide for the heating and cooling needs of families and workers throughout our city," said James Gennaro, chair of the Council Committee on Environment Protection.

City buildings are already operating with geothermal, including the Queens Botanical Garden, Times Square TKTS Booth, Bronx Zoo lighthouse and the Brooklyn Children's Museum.

The bill requires the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability to create a map of the city showing where geothermal energy systems are appropriate based on geologic conditions. That map will then be made available to the public.  

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