IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group III: Mitigation of Climate Change Geothermal

Geothermal resources from low-enthalpy fields located in sedimentary basins of geologically stable platforms have long been used for direct heat extraction for building and district heating, industrial processing, domestic water and space heating, leisure and balneotherapy applications. High-quality high-enthalpy fields (located in geodynamically active regions with high-temperature natural steam reached by drilling at depths less than 2 km) where temperatures are above 250ºC allow for direct electricity production using binary power plants (with low boiling-point transfer fluids and heat exchangers), organic Rankin-cycle systems or steam turbines. Plant capacity factors range from 40 to 95%, with some therefore suitable for base load (WEC, 2004b). Useful heat and power produced globally is around 2 EJ/yr (Table 4.2).

Fields of natural steam are rare. Most are a mixture of steam and hot water requiring single- or double-flash systems to separate out the hot water, which can then be used in binary plants or for direct use of the heat (Martinot et al., 2005). Binary systems have become state-of-the-art technologies but often with additional cost. Re-injection of the fluids maintains a constant pressure in the reservoir and hence increases the life of the field, as well as overcoming any concerns at environmental impacts. Sustainability concerns relating to land subsidence, heat-extraction rates exceeding natural replenishment (Bromley and Currie, 2003), chemical pollution of waterways (e.g. with arsenic), and associated CO2 emissions have resulted in some geothermal power-plant permits being declined. This could be partly overcome by re-injection techniques. Deeper drilling up to 8 km to reach molten rock magma resources may become cost effective in future. Deeper drilling technology could also help to develop widely abundant hot dry rocks where water is injected into artificially fractured rocks and heat extracted as steam. Pilot schemes exist but tend not to be cost effective at this stage. In addition, the growth of ground-to-air heat pumps for heating buildings (Chapter 6) is expected to increase.

Capital costs have declined by around 50% from the 3000–5000 US$/kW in the 1980s for all plant types (with binary cycle plants being the more costly). Power-generation costs vary with high- and low-enthalpy fields, shallow or deep resource, size of field, resource-permit conditions, temperature of resource and the applications for any excess heat (IEA, 2006d; Table 4.7). Operating costs increase if CO2 emissions released either entail a carbon charge or require CCS.

Several advanced energy-conversion technologies are becoming available to enhance the use of geothermal heat, including combined-cycle for steam resources, trilateral cycles for binary total-flow resources, remote detection of hot zones during exploration, absorption/regeneration cycles (e.g., heat pumps) and improved power-generation technologies (WEC, 2004c). Improvements in characterizing underground reservoirs, low-cost drilling techniques, more efficient conversion systems and utilization of deeper reservoirs are expected to improve the uptake of geothermal resources as will a decline in the market value for extractable co-products such as silica, zinc, manganese and lithium (IEA, 2006d).