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Earth power

Geothermal power is produced by harnessing naturally occurring geothermal heat that comes from the deep within the Earth's core to generate electricity.

How it works

There are three types of geothermal resources:Volcanic geothermal resources, engineered geothermal systems and hot fractured rock systems (hot dry rocks).

While volcanic geothermal resources have been developed extensively around the world, this resource is not found in Australia. Instead, Australian geothermal exploration and development companies have focused on engineered geothermal systems (EGS), also known as hot fractured rock systems (HFR) or hot dry rocks (HDR).

These systems involve the artificial creation of reservoirs, enabling water to flow through deep, hot granite rocks that lie up to 5 km below the Earth’s surface. A closed-loop system is used to pump water down a fluid injection well. This water is heated as it circulates through the hot rocks, returning to the surface via production wells at very high temperatures to heat a working fluid with a low boiling point. The working fluid drives a turbine and the cooler water is reinjected down the injection well.

The third category, sedimentary geothermal resources, is also being explored in Australia. In this case, geothermal heat is extracted from naturally occurring sandstone or limestone rocks containing water.

Direct heat applications

A common and established use of geothermal energy around the world and in Australia is direct heat applications. Water, space and district heating, agricultural applications, aquaculture and some industrial uses are the best known forms of direct heat geothermal utilisation.

The municipal buildings and public facilities in the city of Portland in western Victoria are heated using water pumped from a 1,400 metre deep bore at a temperature of 58°Celsius, at rates of approximately 60 litres per second with a nominal capacity of 3,600 kW.

There is also potential for the direct use of low temperature geothermal hot water for drying coal, prior to its combustion during electricity generation, effectively lowering the amount of coal required to produce the same amount of electricity. Direct geothermal heat is also used for spa developments, artesian baths, and swimming pool heating.

Geothermal in the Australian market

The first geothermal exploration licence in Australia was granted in 2000, and by January 2010, 54 companies held 409 leases over an area of 432000 sq km. Committed exploration work programs to be undertaken in every state amount to more than $1 billion for the period 2002–14.

Future Prospects

The future of geothermal power in Australia is heating up. With rich geothermal resources in the Cooper-Eromanga Basin, the Otway and Gippsland Basins, the Perth Basin, the Hunter Valley and Tasmania, Australia’s hot rock opportunities will provide renewable, base load power and a significant source of employment for the emerging green workforce.

“It is well established that Australia has a globally significant geothermal resource relatively close to the Earth’s surface and that we are developing a global leadership position in the technical capability to exploit this resource,” says CEO of the Australian Geothermal Energy Association Susan Jeanes.

The emerging geothermal industry in Australia is expected to provide at least 1,000 megawatts (MW) and potentially up to 2,200 MW of base load capacity by 2020 into the National Electricity Market, according to an independent report to the Australian Geothermal Energy Association (AGEA).

In a separate report, modelling commissioned by WWF Australia anticipates that by 2050, geothermal energy could account for around 58 million MW hours of electricity per year.

The Australian Geothermal Reporting Code

The Australian geothermal sector has expanded rapidly in the past decade, now consisting of some 13 stock exchange-listed and 30 unlisted companies with geothermal exploration or development tenements.

The world’s first public reporting code for geothermal resources, reserves and exploration results was developed in 2007–08 by a joint committee of the Australian Geothermal Energy Group and the Australian Geothermal Energy Association. The Reporting Code seeks to govern how public reports of Listed Companies are worded and presented.
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