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Geothermal explained Use of geothermal energy

Some applications of geothermal energy use the earth's temperatures near the surface, while others require drilling miles into the earth. There are three main types of geothermal energy systems:

  • Direct use and district heating systems
  • Electricity generation power plants
  • Geothermal heat pumps

Direct use and district heating systems

Direct use and district heating systems use hot water from springs or reservoirs located near the surface of the earth. Ancient Roman, Chinese, and Native American cultures used hot mineral springs for bathing, cooking, and heating. Today, many hot springs are still used for bathing, and many people believe the hot, mineral-rich waters have natural healing powers.

Geothermal energy is also used to heat buildings through district heating systems. Hot water near the earth's surface is piped directly into buildings for heat. A district heating system provides heat for most of the buildings in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Industrial applications of geothermal energy include food dehydration, gold mining, and milk pasteurizing. Dehydration, or the drying of vegetable and fruit products, is the most common industrial use of geothermal energy.

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Geothermal electricity generation

Geothermal electricity generation requires water or steam at high temperatures (300° to 700°F). Geothermal power plants are generally built where geothermal reservoirs are located, within a mile or two of the earth's surface.

The United States leads the world in the amount of electricity generated with geothermal energy. In 2018, there were geothermal power plants in seven states, which produced about 16.7 billion kilowatthours (kWh), equal to 0.4% of total U.S. utility-scale electricity generation.

States with geothermal power plants in 2018
State share of total U.S. geothermal electricity generation Geothermal share of total state electricity generation
California 71.9% 6.1%
Nevada 21.7% 9.1%
Utah 2.8% 1.2%
Hawaii 1.9% 3.2%
Oregon 1.1% 0.3%
Idaho 0.5% 0.5%
New Mexico 0.1% < 0.1%

In 2016, about 23 countries, including the United States, generated a total of about 77 billion kWh of electricity from geothermal energy. The Philippines was the second-largest geothermal electricity producer after the United States, at about 11 billion kWh of electricity, which equaled approximately 13% of the Philippines' total electricity generation. Kenya was the eighth-largest producer of electricity from geothermal energy at about 4.2 billion kWh, but it had the largest share of its total electricity generation from geothermal energy at about 44%.

Geothermal heat pumps

Geothermal heat pumps use the constant temperatures near the surface of the earth to heat and cool buildings. Geothermal heat pumps transfer heat from the ground (or water) into buildings during the winter and reverse the process in the summer.

Last updated: June 10, 2019