Forget what you may have heard about geothermal. Remove the vision of beautiful people in steamy swimming pools and spas, or scenic landscapes of volcanoes and geysers. The Earth energy we need to unlock is everywhere beneath you. This ubiquitous and constant energy is below your home, your workplace, and below you right now as you read this article. Our human senses in our regular daily lives simply don’t see that energy, and we don’t feel it. That energy is always there, flowing up from deep below the rocky crust we inhabit, from our Earth’s very core. It’s been that way for four and a half billion years and will continue for as long as the Earth exists, no matter what our human capabilities do to it.
The beauty in this energy elephant is that it can be unlocked in a multitude of different ways. It’s energy that can power our needs through electricity generation or by using it directly for both heating and cooling. It can bring equity and be equitable. It can be used for our transport and our homes, or grow our food and provide for our essential needs to survive. Earth energy is truly an elephant among its peers! And then there’s the cage. The technologies have been decades in development as it takes ingenuity, effort, and patience to tame. This elephant has also been locked away from us because the energy market conditions have not led to the support and investment that it deserves. Now is the time to unlock it.
Whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not, we need a renewable and clean energy future. Our society must become carbon neutral as soon as possible. Climate change is an international emergency that is already affecting human civilization and it isn’t going to be good. We need to minimize those climate affects as much as possible, which means kicking the habit from fossil fuels. It means changing the way we live our lives from our petrol fueled cars through to piping natural gas into our homes and industries. It means bringing greater electrification and heat management. Sorry to bring you this bad news, but your propane barbecue will eventually become obsolete!
Our renewable and clean energy future needs electricity generation from solar and wind sources. It needs us to use hydroelectricity and tidal energy. It needs us to change our habits to a more efficient way to use our energy and it needs us to learn how to store energy when we have it available and don’t immediately use it. But it also needs something big, very big! We need an energy source that is always on, no matter the time of day, or day of the year, or what the weather is doing. There needs to be a constant flow of clean and renewable energy that we can use instead of the traditional and polluting baseload power sources like coal, gas, or nuclear.
The reason we need to unlock this elephant is because of what I will refer to as the California Renewables Syndrome. The California Renewables Syndrome is not some form of entertaining spy thriller! It is the inability to transition California to a future of high intermittent renewables without an adaptable always-on energy source that can meet our basic energy needs at any time and any place. Without that ubiquitous source, our clean energy vision is stranded and our quest for decarbonization is beyond reach. California is leading the way in building out intermittent renewable energy and should be applauded, but it’s now reached a tipping point of diminishing returns. It can’t simply transition its power system; instead, it needs to be transformational in its entire energy use. As with many things we now use in our lives, from Google to smoked salmon pizza, the world needs to look to California for taking the lead.
The California Renewables Syndrome is caused because wind and solar can’t provide electricity all the time and aren’t effective everywhere. These energy sources are not secure, reliable, or resilient. The California State government has discovered they need to install nearly five times the solar and wind capacity to replace each unit of traditional baseload capacity, just to have enough energy in the system when the intermittent sources are switched on in regular conditions, and that’s in a State that’s conducive to these sources. On a good day, they’ve discovered that when intermittent sources are running well there is too much energy, and on a bad day, when they become unavailable due to some adverse conditions, then there is way too little energy. In between the daily times of feast and famine, daytime and nighttime, there is a need for huge acceleration of electricity onto the power grid from something else. Energy storage can help to smooth out short term supplies, but as wind and solar projects continue to be built out then that amount of energy demand in just a few hours becomes increasingly challenging.
To make things even worse for our clean energy vision, California is feeling this syndrome without a solution to longer-term seasonal demands that will occur with electrification as we reduce reliance on fossil fuels. These seasonal demands will work against the efficiency of solar, when electricity needs increase during cooler temperatures and longer winter nights. And California doesn’t experience the collective heating and cooling challenges that are far more serious in other regions of the planet. Globally, these needs alone contribute over half of all emitted greenhouse gases. The California Renewables Syndrome means that without a big renewable and clean energy source filling the hole then a continuing reliance on polluting baseload is needed or else the lights, and the electric vehicle chargers, will switch off.
And so the elephant in its cage enters the room! People in California are also very lucky because the elephant there can be unlocked with reasonable ease. It happens that the State is the international heart of the geothermal power industry with readily available resources that can be developed with today’s technologies. The California State government has finally handed over the keys to the cage by demanding the power industry procure more geothermal energy to come to its aid. New technologies, entrepreneurs, and startups are now entering the market, and are following research programs funded by the State and Federal governments. And with greater innovation and increasing efficiency then that ability to unlock earth energy at large scales will broaden out to all regions of the globe.
As our delegates at COP26 convene in the halls of the Scottish Event Campus over the coming days they will debate the greatest challenge to our civilization that we’ve ever faced. How many of them know they are walking and sitting on the solution to their problems? Like the sun shining in the sky, the Earth in its own way is shining beneath them. Many of them probably don’t even realize the issues faced in California and instead call for an ever-increasing use of intermittent renewables that can only partly satisfy our long-term needs for clean power and heat, will not get society to carbon neutral, and will not give us the decarbonized lives we need. So, unlock the elephant in the room, point to your feet, and shout it out, “Earth energy will save our Earth”.