Environmental Impacts of Geothermal Energy

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Geothermal energy is considered to be a renewable resource. Water is used to bring up heat from underneath our feet to create energy that we can use for heating, power generation, and other similar needs. Although geothermal energy can potentially reduce harmful emissions as power is created, there are environmental impacts that must be considered.

1. Geothermal energy still creates greenhouse gases.

The use of energy from geothermal wells has been shown to produce ammonia, methane, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide. The emissions associated from these wells are lower than comparable fossil fuel resources, but do exist nonetheless.

2. Geothermal energy creates the potential for water contamination.

In a 1975 study of geothermal energy production by Robert Axtmann, it was discovered that a New Zealand plant was contaminated a local river with arsenic, mercury, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide. This contamination had adverse effects on the river.

3. Geothermal energy produces high levels of heat and water vapor.

In the areas that surround a geothermal plant, heat levels can be up to 6 times higher than regular background levels. Water vapor levels can be up to 5 times higher than normal. There is also a noticeable increase in sulfur levels. For this reason, most geothermal production facilities and wells need to be placed outside of residential areas to reduce potentially harmful effects on human health.

4. Geothermal wells can potentially contaminate groundwater.

Many geothermal wells have been found to have high concentrations of harmful substances, such as led, antimony, mercury, and arsenic. If a well were to leak into a local groundwater supply, the effects could be devastating for the region. The potential risk for water quality contamination is high, but many feel like the reward of renewable energy is worth the risk, which means this impact will always be present.

5. Geothermal drilling changes the terrain.

Because water is used to extract geothermal energy, the principles of erosion apply to each well. Minerals are removed from rocks and local soil, which changes how they are shaped. These materials are then often found as residue within distribution pipes, which increases the maintenance cost of this renewable energy resource.

The environmental impacts of geothermal energy are often considered to be positive, but there are certain proactive actions which must be taken to prevent negative and potentially severe outcomes.