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A History of Geothermal Energy

Geothermal energy has been around ever since the Earth was formed about 4.6 billion years ago. This thermal energy generated and stored by the Earth has been used in various ways throughout history. This article takes a look at the history of geothermal energy from the first known use by mankind through to the modern day.

Discovery

Thermal energy created by the Earth has been in use ever since the Paleolithic era when hot springs are believed to have been used for bathing for the first time. This primitive use of Geothermal energy was then further developed by the Romans in the first century AD.

Development of Geothermal Power Technologies

It wasn’t until 1904 when there was a breakthrough in the use of geothermal energy as a power source. On the 4th July 1904 at the Larderello dry steam field in Italy, Piero Ginori Conti tested the first ever geothermal power generator. This small generator was able to provide enough power in order for five lightbulbs to be lit.

Piero Ginori Conti would further develop his technology in order to build the first ever geothermal power plant which became operational in 1911 at the Valle del Diavolo (“Devils Valley”) in Larderello, Italy. This ‘dry-steam’ geothermal power plant would provide electricity for the Italian railway system and would remain the world’s only geothermal power plant until 1922.

Timeline of Note-Worthy Events

In 1922 in the United States, John D. Grant would launch the world’s second geothermal power plant. It was able to produce 250 kilowatts of electricity and was used to power street lights and buildings in the local area. Unfortunately, the power plant wasn’t very competitive with other sources of power and would close soon after.

In 1958, New Zealand’s Wairakei Power Station became operational, making it the world’s second major industrial producer of geothermal electricity. This power station would be the first in the world to make use of ‘flash steam’ technology. You can learn more about the different types of geothermal power stations here.

The United States would eventually find success with geothermal electricity production in the 1960’s when its first large-scale geothermal power plant came into operation, producing 11 megawatts (MW) of electricity. This was seen as a huge triumph for the United States and would pave the way for a new generation of geothermal power plants in the country.

Over the coming decades, other countries including Iceland, Kenya, Indonesia, Philippines and Mexico would invest in Geothermal power technologies.

Geothermal Energy Use Today

Today, the largest producer of Geothermal electricity is the United States, which in 2013 had an estimated total installed capacity of just under 3,400 MW.

In recent years, Indonesia has overtaken Philippines as the world’s second largest producer of geothermal electricity. Italy is currently the fourth largest producer of Geothermal electricity with New Zealand being the fifth.

The Future of Geothermal Energy

Although geographical limitations exist on where geothermal energy technologies can be used to their full potential, we are likely to see more powerful, more efficient geothermal power plants being built in the coming decades.

The use of geothermal energy, together with solar, wind and hydroelectricity, can help pave the way to a brighter future by reducing our dependence on depleting reserves of non-renewable energy sources such as coal, oil and gas.