What are the Disadvantages of Geothermal Energy?

Carol Francois

As the interest in alternate fuels such as geothermal energy increases, it is important to also consider the disadvantages of geothermal energy. Geothermal energy uses the heat stored in the earth to generate electricity. This heat is trapped in the earth’s core and can be accessed by drilling into the earth’s crust. There are several locations where a source of energy is located closer to the earth’s surface, making it possible to generate heat by harnessing the steam that is already escaping.

Required infrastructure, location and renewability are the main disadvantages of geothermal energy.
Required infrastructure, location and renewability are the main disadvantages of geothermal energy.

There are three major disadvantages of geothermal energy: renewability, infrastructure requirement, and location. These factors are central to the worldwide usage of geothermal energy. This type of energy creates no waste product and operates at almost no cost once the original plant investment is completed.

Assessing the earth's energy and using it as a power source may affect the tectonic plates.
Assessing the earth's energy and using it as a power source may affect the tectonic plates.

The drain on the earth's resources is one of the largest disadvantages of geothermal energy. Once the heat source starts to cool down, there is no way to reverse it. Although these types of energy plants can provide stable energy for an extended period of time, there is a definite end date. In order to replace that energy source, a new location would need to be identified and a new plant built.

The equipment, staff, infrastructure, and training required to create a geothermal energy plant is a significant investment of both cash and equipment. Once the energy is harnessed from the ground, it needs to be converted into electricity and transported to electricity transmission stations. An entire network of electricity towers, stations, and switches are required to move the power from the geothermal plant site to the consumer.

Skilled staff need to be recruited and relocated to the plant location. The ideal location for a geothermal energy station is quite remote, which adds to the cost of the project. Resources and facilities to house and support a large staff are required. Many firms offer additional bonuses to encourage staff to relocate to these remote locations.

A great deal of investigation has been done into the environmental impact of a geothermal energy plant and the disadvantages of geothermal energy. The energy and heat that is generated in the earth’s core creates lava and pushes up against the earth’s crust. This process creates land mass and strengthens the earth's crust. Accessing the earth’s energy and using it as a power source may affect land stability and the tectonic plates that form the underlying structure of the earth’s surface.

Further exploration of the risks and benefits of geothermal energy are required before it can be utilized as a reliable source of energy around the world. As other energy sources are depleted, this type of energy will receive more attention. Work is ongoing to reduce the total costs associated with the type of energy.

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There is another risk associated with utility scale geothermal energy that the article did not discuss in depth. The drilling and blasting of wells can have unknown effects on plate tectonics, especially as geothermal resources are frequently being discovered at deeper depths. As the article stated, geothermal resources are found near geologically active zones where the earth’s crust is thin. Geothermal wells are now being drilled past the top layers of sedimentary rock; tapping into the deeper deposits of plutonic igneous rock. The size of the earthquakes can only be predicted to a certain extent, and do not take into account drilling into a hidden fault. A recent magnitude 3.4 earthquake in Basel Switzerland that resulted from deep well geothermal drilling has brought similar projects in the U.S. under scrutiny. There is currently a debate on whether or not the benefits and costs of geothermal energy are worth exploiting; especially when the energy sources are relatively close to heavily populated regions.


The use of geothermal energy to reduce our nation’s dependence on fossil fuels can be done in two ways. The centralized, utility scale approach discussed in this article is one way. This approach is important because it helps to mitigate supply side energy problems associated with fossil fuels. The other approach is the use of residential and commercial geothermal heating and cooling. These consumer technologies are 3-5 times more efficient than the most efficient electric or gas HVAC systems. The cost is also reasonable considering the tax incentives and energy savings associated with the systems. If the systems are also used in conjunction with photovoltaic solar panels and used to heat water, the systems can be 14 or more times as efficient as traditional systems. The beauty of these systems is that they can be used at almost any build site, they are extremely effective at heating and cooling, and there is almost no environmental impact from their use and installation. The Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory released a comprehensive report in December of 2008 that describes the benefits and challenges of using geothermal heat pumps as a heating and cooling system http://www.zebralliance.com/docs/geothermal_report_12-08.pdf. According to the Energy Information Administration, 31% of all residential electricity consumption in this country is attributed to heating, ventilation, and cooling. If an aggressive campaign were undertaken to promote the benefits of efficient geothermal heating and cooling the amount of energy saved would be significant. It would surely offset the need to build some new power plants; allowing renewable energy plants to serve the purpose of replacing outdated fossil fuel plants.

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