how does geothermal energy affect the environment

How Does Geothermal Energy Affect the Environment?

Last Updated on August 20, 2023 by Annie Baldwin

Geothermal energy has both positive and negative environmental impacts that are important to understand.

By analyzing the pros and cons, we can make informed decisions about utilizing this abundant energy source sustainably.

This article explores the key effects of geothermal power generation on the environment.

How Does Geothermal Energy Affect the Environment?

A geothermal energy plant
The two main environmental problems linked to geothermal energy technology are air and water contamination. The proper disposal of hazardous waste, site selection, and ground subsidence are further issues. For cooling or other uses, the majority of geothermal power facilities need a lot of water. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Yes, geothermal energy does have an impact on the environment, both positive and negative.

While geothermal plants produce clean, renewable power with low emissions, they can also lead to land subsidence, seismic events, habitat disruption, and water contamination if not properly managed.

Responsible development practices are necessary.

Key Points

  • Geothermal energy emits about 5% of the carbon dioxide of coal plants, reducing greenhouse gases.
  • Geothermal development can cause landscape scarring from roads and well pads.
  • Wastewater reinjection helps prevent land subsidence and earthquakes induced by geothermal plants.

What are the main advantages of geothermal energy for the environment?

Geothermal power plants do not burn fuels to generate electricity, resulting in significantly lower emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide compared to fossil fuel plants.

The steam and hot water used to spin the turbines is supplied directly by the heat underground rather than by combustion.

This results in an environmentally friendly way to produce reliable baseload power with a small carbon footprint.

In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, geothermal plants emit on average just 5% of the carbon dioxide emitted by coal-fired power plants.

Geothermal energy also helps reduce our reliance on finite critical materials needed for other clean energy technologies like solar panels or wind turbines.

The abundant supply of geothermal energy globally can provide consistent renewable power.

How does geothermal energy reduce air pollution?

While geothermal sites release some carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide into the air, these emissions are far lower compared to burning fossil fuels.

Sulfur dioxide emissions from geothermal plants are generally negligible with proper scrubbing technology.

Direct contact with geothermal steam allows extraction of the sulfur in the fluid, making emissions even lower.

Scrubbing the vapor with water helps keep air pollutants to a minimum at geothermal facilities.

Overall, the lifecycle carbon footprint of geothermal plants is estimated to be about 40 times lower than coal-fired power and around 25% of natural gas combined cycle plants.

This makes geothermal a smart choice to help reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Does geothermal energy impact water quality?

Geothermal plants use water to produce electricity, which can impact water quality and consumption.

The hot water extracted from geothermal reservoirs contains elevated levels of minerals like silica, calcium, and chloride.

When the geothermal fluids are injected back underground after energy extraction, reinjection can increase groundwater temperature.

Elevated temperatures may impact microbial communities in the reservoirs.

However, binary cycle geothermal plants greatly reduce water pollution.

In these plants, the geothermal fluid heats a secondary working fluid with a much lower boiling point.

This means no gases or minerals from deep geothermal water mixed with freshwater sources.

How does geothermal energy affect landscapes?

Exploration and plant construction during geothermal development can impact landscapes and scenery.

Creating access roads and well pads scars natural landscapes.

The plant itself can be an eyesore, depending on the environment it is built in.

However, geothermal plants have a very small footprint compared to other thermal power stations.

The underground nature of the geothermal resource means surface disturbance is minimized relative to the amount of energy harnessed.

What is a major concern regarding surface instability from geothermal plants?

One of the main concerns regarding geothermal plants is that extracting and injecting fluid can cause fluctuations in reservoir pressure, inducing small earthquakes or subsidence of the ground surface.

Research shows that earthquakes caused by geothermal activity tend to be minor, registering less than 3 on the Richter scale.

More seismic events generally occur early on during reservoir development.

Proper management strategies can help reduce seismic risk over time.

Land subsidence is permanently reduced by limiting fluid extraction and reinjecting wastewater to maintain reservoir pressures.

Careful monitoring can help prevent major surface instability issues at geothermal sites.

Can geothermal plants harm natural habitats and wildlife?

Like all industrial energy development, geothermal plants can contribute to habitat loss and fragmentation.

The noises, traffic, and human presence can disturb species and ecosystems.

Birds and bats can die from colliding with tall geothermal towers or swimming in toxic discharge waters.

However, some impacts can be mitigated by carefully selecting sites away from critical habitats and animal movement corridors.

Stacked double turbines reduce bird collisions.

Noise pollution can be minimized by using quieter air-cooled condensers.

How can the negative ecological impacts of geothermal energy be reduced?

The environmental effects of geothermal plants can be diminished through proper siting, resource extraction limits, habitat protection measures, and emissions controls.

Binary cycle plants greatly reduce water pollution and wet cooling tower steam plumes.

Reinjecting wastewater also limits subsidence and seismic events.

Scrubbing technology helps reduce air emissions even further.

Coordinating with environmental groups and agencies ensures critical habitats and species are protected.

With proactive planning and conservation, geothermal energy can be sustained with minimal environmental harm.

Is Geothermal Energy Environmentally Friendly?

Geothermal energy is considered an environmentally friendly energy source because it harnesses heat sustainably produced within the earth, without burning fossil fuels.

Geothermal plants emit minimal air pollution and greenhouse gases compared to conventional power plants.

However, geothermal energy production is not completely without environmental impacts.

Developing geothermal plants requires drilling wells deep underground, which can disrupt habitats and release trace amounts of toxic minerals and gases.

The pumping of geothermal fluids can also contribute to subsidence or induced seismicity if not properly managed.

While not zero-impact, the overall carbon footprint and ecosystem impacts of geothermal energy are substantially lower than fossil fuel sources.

When developed responsibly, geothermal provides renewable power with far less pollution than coal or natural gas.

The emissions from geothermal are on par with other clean sources like solar or wind.

What Is An Environmental Disadvantage Of Geothermal Energy?

One key environmental disadvantage of geothermal energy is that developing geothermal plants can lead to land subsidence and induced seismicity.

Extracting large amounts of hot fluids from underground geothermal reservoirs can cause the land above to subside or collapse.

Reinjecting geothermal wastewater also raises underground pressures, which can trigger small earthquakes in some instances.

Even minor seismic shaking can raise concerns in nearby communities.

Subsidence and induced seismicity must be carefully monitored and managed during geothermal operations to prevent substantial surface instability.

Geothermal development can also negatively impact natural habitats and species if power plants are poorly sited.

Constructing roads and well pads may disrupt ecosystems and animal behaviors.

Proper environmental reviews should identify and protect critical habitat zones when siting geothermal plants.

Does Geothermal Energy Affect Climate Change?

Dry-steam power plants take advantage of natural underground sources of steam.
Geothermal energy, or heat from below the earth’s surface, can be used to generate utility-scale electricity or heat and cool specific homes and neighborhoods. Geothermal energy, in contrast to fossil fuels, is a sustainable resource that doesn’t release the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Image Credit: National Geographic

Geothermal energy can play a role in mitigating climate change because it produces baseload electricity with minimal greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil fuel power plants.

The steam and hot water used by geothermal plants emit little to no greenhouse gases or air pollutants.

Even when indirect emissions from construction and operations are accounted for, the carbon footprint of geothermal energy remains low.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, geothermal power plants release approximately 5% of the lifecycle carbon dioxide emissions of coal plants and 3% of natural gas combined cycle plants.

By displacing electricity from fossil fuels, existing geothermal plants in the U.S. reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 20 million metric tons annually.

Expanding geothermal energy can help curb greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.

What is the key takeaway regarding geothermal energy and the environment?

Geothermal energy provides a low-carbon, renewable baseload power source that can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.

However, geothermal plants can negatively impact water quality, induce seismic events, contribute to habitat loss, and more.

Responsible development practices such as binary cycles, seismic monitoring, habitat protection, and scrubbing technology can limit these downsides.

Overall, geothermal energy delivers clean power but requires environmental safeguarding measures for sustainable utilization.


What temperature is geothermal energy?

Geothermal energy utilizes hot water or steam from underground reservoirs ranging from about 77 to 660 degrees Fahrenheit. Wells access high-temperature fluids thousands of feet deep that can be used to generate electricity.

How much land does a geothermal plant use?

The land use footprint of a geothermal plant is relatively small, only using about 1 square mile per 100 megawatts generated. This is because geothermal relies on accessing underground heat rather than extensive solar fields or wind farms.

Can geothermal cause earthquakes?

Extracting and re-injecting geothermal fluids can induce minor seismic events by changing pressures underground. However, proper monitoring and management strategies help minimize earthquake risks associated with geothermal energy development.

At GreenChiCafe, we are passionate about the environment and our natural world. Please check out our website for more content on renewable energy, sustainability, conservation, and living an eco-friendly lifestyle.

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