Geothermal energy refers to thermal energy (heat energy) which is generated and stored beneath the Earth's crust. Other than the origin of this planet, the development of geothermal energy within the interior of the Earth can be attributed to radioactive decay, volcanic activity, etc. As far as power generation is concerned, this energy used in the form of steam to rotate turbines and generate electricity. Even though the use of geothermal energy for power generation has made it quite popular of late, very few people know that it has been used in different forms by mankind for several hundreds of years.
Geothermal Energy History
The history of geothermal energy can be traced back to ancient times, somewhere around 10,000 years ago to be precise, when the same was harnessed in the form of hot water springs and used for the purpose of cooking, bathing, etc. Even though it was initially believed that the use of geothermal energy is a relatively new concept, archaeological excavations in North America revealed that hot water springs were preferred sites for the American Paleo-Indian settlements in the continent, and they used these hot water springs for several daily tasks.
The practice eventually spread to the other parts of the world, and historical records have quite a few citations about this - the best probably being the fact that early Romans used these hot water springs to heat water as well as to keep their homes warm.
First Commercial Use
In 1800s, the European settlers in North America began moving west - wherein they came across hot water springs which they referred to as 'the springs of warmth and vitality'. It was believed that the water from these springs had medicinal properties which were beneficial for human health.
In 1807, a European settler - John Colter, became the first person to come across these hot water spring in the present-day US state of Wyoming. The site wherein Colter came across this spring is referred to as the 'Colter's Hell' even today. The first instance of commercial use of geothermal energy can be traced to 1830, wherein Asa Thompson began charging a dollar each of having bath in hot water springs in Arkansas.
Large-scale Commercial Use
In the second half of the 19th century, several people settled along these hot water springs in the United States of America with the intention of using the naturally available source of heat. The first use of geothermal energy on a large scale though, only came in 1864; when a hotel named the 'Hot Lake Hotel' near La Grande, in Oregon, began using the steam from hot water springs in the vicinity to heat the rooms. The commercial use of geothermal energy on a large scale continued with the establishment of first ever district heating system in Boise, Idaho, in 1892, wherein water from the hot springs was taken to the town by means of a pipeline.
Geothermal Power Generator and Geothermal Power Plants
By the beginning of 20th century, electricity needs of the world had increased by a great extent and search was on for an alternative source of power. On 4th July, 1904, Prince Piero Ginori Conti - an Italian businessman and politician, tested the first ever geothermal power generator in Larderello, Italy. This was the same place where the first commercial geothermal power plant of the world was eventually built in 1911.
This development made Italy the first country to generate electricity from geothermal energy. While other countries - including the United States, continued their attempts to start the production of electricity by harnessing geothermal power, Italy continued to be the only country to do so until 1958 - when it was joined by New Zealand.
Interestingly, the Wairakei plant, which made New Zealand the only second country to produce electricity from geothermal energy, was the first plant to resort to flash steam technology. In 1960, America got its first geothermal electric power plant. It was built by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company at The Geysers in California. With its original setup, this plant produced as much as 11 megawatts electricity which was renewable and environment friendly.
In 1967, USSR demonstrated the first of its kind binary cycle power plant which made it possible to produce electricity from low temperature fluid - which was eventually introduced in the United States in 1981 following the energy crisis of the 70s. The crude versions of widely used geothermal heat pumps (GHP) were also introduced in 1980s.
As of today, as many as 24 countries resort to geothermal energy for production of electricity and somewhere around 70 countries resort to geothermal heating. At the same time, the fact that the installed capacity of geothermal power plants across the world combined stands at 10,715 megawatts (MW) does speak in volumes about the success of this alternative energy source.