Geothermal power plants use hydrothermal resources that have both water (hydro) and heat (thermal). Geothermal power plants require high-temperature (300°F to 700°F) hydrothermal resources that come from either dry steam wells or from hot water wells. People use these resources by drilling wells into the earth and then piping steam or hot water to the surface. The hot water or steam powers a turbine that generates electricity. Some geothermal wells are as much as two miles deep.
A geothermal power plant emitting steam
Source: Stock photography (copyrighted)
Types of geothermal power plants
There are three basic types of geothermal power plants:
- Dry steam plants use steam directly from a geothermal reservoir to turn generator turbines. The first geothermal power plant was built in 1904 in Tuscany, Italy, where natural steam erupted from the earth.
- Flash steam plants take high-pressure hot water from deep inside the earth and convert it to steam to drive generator turbines. When the steam cools, it condenses to water and is injected back into the ground to be used again. Most geothermal power plants are flash steam plants.
- Binary cycle power plants transfer the heat from geothermal hot water to another liquid. The heat causes the second liquid to turn to steam, which is used to drive a generator turbine.
The differences between dry steam, flash steam, and binary cycle power plants are shown in the diagrams below.
Source: U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (public domain)
Last reviewed: November 19, 2020