Record heat waves in Texas, massive floods in New England, devastating fires in Hawaii, and urban heat pockets in cities. Climate change creates a significant public health challenge. Geothermal offers solutions to improve public health and protect the environment.
Geothermal is the energy source naturally produced by the Earth. It is a proven technology with decades of utilization across the United States where it provides cooling, heating, and electricity. Geothermal has been heating Boise, Idaho since 1892, generating electricity since the 1960s in northern California, and provides air conditioning to buildings across the country.
The underlying energy source––the literal heat beneath our feet––is local, 100% American, and offers a stable and reliable form of energy. Government agencies and academic institutions have already identified more than enough untapped Earth-powered energy in the United States alone to meet the nation’s energy needs while also achieving its emissions goals.
In fact, the total amount of heat energy in the Earth’s crust is many times greater than the energy available globally from all fossil fuels and nuclear energy. Geothermal not only offers clean firm, reliable, and stable baseload power, but it can also efficiently cool and heat your home!
Geothermal (or ground source) heat pumps utilize the constant 55-degree Fahrenheit temperature just a handful of feet below the earth’s surface to transfer heat out of your home when it is hot and bring this warm temperature into your home when it is cold.
The public health and environmental benefits of geothermal energy are enormous, underutilized, and not well known by the public.
Traditional air-conditioning and air source heat pumps remove dangerous heat from buildings and provide life-saving shelter and comfort. Unfortunately, these air-conditioning systems worsen other problems.
Heat is not so much eliminated as it is moved from one location to another. When a building interior is cooled, that heat is transferred to the exterior surroundings. In dense urban areas, this effect increases local temperatures, exacerbating the heat wave in places that are already heat islands as a result of urbanization. Heat exposure is associated with heat stroke, loss of labor productivity, decreases in learning, dangerous dehydration, and even heat-related deaths.
Geothermal offers a critical solution to urban areas across the country. Geothermal cooling systems can reduce building interior temperatures without heating the surrounding air space, eliminating the intensification of urban heat islands. Geothermal moves heat underground where it can dissipate naturally and also serves as a form of energy storage.
This energy can be utilized later when temperatures drop, and people turn up their home thermostats in the fall and winter. This process makes geothermal ground-source heat pumps 40% more efficient than air-source heat pumps saving people money while also improving the public health of communities.
Extreme heat and extreme cold events have become more frequent and intense as a result of climate change. This presents significant challenges for the energy sector and electric grid. In extreme heat events, air-conditioning is a life-saving tool, but air-conditioning requires significant electricity, placing additional stress on electric grids and generation systems.
This strain can lead to blackouts which create a serious risk of heat-related illness and mortality.
Similarly, extreme cold events in typically warm areas create unmanageable demand on the electric grid. Due in large part to the failure of the Texas Interconnect power grid during Winter Storm Uri in 2021, 4.5 million Texans lost power and hundreds of people lost their lives. Longer-duration power outages caused widespread disruptions to water treatment plants, making municipal water unsafe to drink for almost 13 million people.
Geothermal power is available 24/7 and is resilient to extreme weather. As such, it complements wind and solar energy, which can fluctuate and produce only intermittent power and can be disrupted by extreme weather events.
Geothermal heat pumps are far more efficient than their air-source counterparts, especially at high and low temperatures, and therefore do not place as much strain on the electrical grid as traditional air conditioners and electric furnaces. The combination of reliable
24/7 geothermal power and widespread geothermal heat pump utilization would dramatically improve the resiliency of our electrical grids and reduce the tragic public health risks associated with grid instability.
Geothermal offers a more resilient, environmentally friendly, and renewable energy resource to communities everywhere. Unlike other clean energy technologies such as nuclear, biomass, wind, and solar energy as well as battery storage––geothermal provides these benefits with no harmful waste by-products or mining operations.
Geothermal energy does not depend on extractive activities (i.e., mining) that have a history of adversely impacting the environment and Indigenous communities. Unlike fossil fuel-fired power plants, geothermal power plants do not burn fuel to generate electricity.
Geothermal power plants have the lowest lifecycle carbon footprint of all renewable energy technologies, including wind and solar.
Geothermal power plants emit 97% less acid rain-causing sulfur compounds and about 99% less carbon dioxide than fossil fuel power plants of similar size. In addition to carbon dioxide, fossil fuel-fired power plants emit Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), Sulfur Dioxide (SO2), and fine particulates which harm the human respiratory system. These emissions can also react with sunlight and volatile organic compounds in the air to form ozone pollution.
Elevated concentrations of ground-level ozone and fine particles, which research shows aggravate heart and lung disease, can lead to heart attacks, asthma attacks, stroke, increased susceptibility to respiratory infection, and other serious health effects. Every year, pollution from power plants causes fine particle and ground-level ozone-related premature deaths, new asthma cases and asthma exacerbations, heart attacks, and lost school and work days.
Geothermal power plants do not pose the public health risks associated with fossil fuel-fired power plants, and more widespread geothermal power generation can alleviate the negative public health consequences associated with other power sources by reducing our need for mining critical minerals.
Increasing the amount of geothermal power on the grid and accelerating the adoption of geothermal heat pumps will reduce the need for fossil fuel-fired power plants which will alleviate the negative health outcomes of people and communities living close to polluting power plants.
We can find geothermal just below our feet, literally everywhere. It provides 24/7 pollution-free power, cooling, and heating that is safe, resilient, reliable, local, and American.
Geothermal can alleviate public health risks associated with pollution, extreme weather events, and urban heat islands. It is safe to live in close proximity to geothermal power generation and it is a nearly invisible technology. The major hurdle holding back the adoption and widespread use of geothermal is the lack of familiarity of this technology among the media, policymakers, investors, and the public.
The climate crisis is happening right now. The solution is geothermal.