geothermal energy map Strip our biggest sources of energy to their most elemental, and you are left with firethe burning of fossil fuels. To build a sustainable energy future, we will have to start relying a lot more on the other three classical elements: water, wind, and earth. This year, discover teamed up with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (ieee), and the National Science Foundation to bring leading energy experts to Capitol Hill, where they briefed Washington insiders and charted the scientific, technological, and political challenges that lie ahead on the road to a new energy economy. 1 EARTH: Tap Into the Heat Beneath Your Feet THE CHALLENGE Geothermal energy has been around so long that it hardly deserves to be called alternative; people have been tapping hot water below the Earths surface to generate electricity for a century. But geothermal accounts for only about 16 terawatt-hours a year in the United States, less than half of 1 percent of total electricity consumption. As with wind energy, geothermal is simple in principle but hard to do successfully in practice. Too often, drilling results in wells that are hot but have no water or wells that are simply not hot enough. A symptom of the industrys woes is that federal funding for geothermal energy has fallen from about $450 million in 1979 (in 2011 dollars) to below $50 million this year. THE NEW ENERGY ECONOMY Geophysicist David Blackwell of Southern Methodist University says that lack of attention is a mistake. He estimates that there are 100 to 500 gigawatts of potential geothermal energy locked beneath the United States. What is needed to successfully exploit all that energy, according to Nevada geologist James Faulds, is investment in more detailed geologic mapping, three-dimensional modeling of underground water flows, and
testing of water chemistry that can indicate the temperature of subsurface waters. More surveys of ancient hot springs, which can point to the locations of still-active geothermal systems, would help too. Such support for geothermal energy is suddenly looking more likely due to an unlikely ally: the natural gas industry, which is in the midst of a giddy boom driven by the widespread adoption of the controversial drilling technique known as fracking. Were discovering that many of the gas wells that have already been drilled produce significant amounts of hot water, says Karl Gawell, executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association. Many of those fracked wells could be reengineered to have a second life as sources of geothermal energy... The full text of this article is available only to DISCOVER subscribers. Click through to the article to subscribe, log in, or buy a digital version of this issue. Aborigines learned to use this stuff millennium ago, so why is it taking us so long?