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Surprising Science

Geothermal Energy: Massive Potential, Earthquake Risk

Google-funded research shows America’s potential for extracting geothermal energy is huge, but that harvesting it could cost a lot and even cause small earthquakes in the process.

What’s the Latest Development?

New research has doubled the number of sources available for geothermal energy extraction within the United States. The study comes from Southern Methodist University—sponsored by Google’s philanthropic arm—and sets a new depth standard of 6.5 kilometers and takes a survey of the entire country, while past attempts have concentrated only on the western states. With 35,000 sites available, the energy take could be three million megawatts, enough to power the nation three times over.

What’s the Big Idea?

Most existing geothermal energy projects draw hot water from below the Earth’s surface, using steam power to turn generators. The process entails fracturing bedrock to free up aquifers, not unlike the process used to extract natural gas, albeit without the toxic chemicals. In 2007, a 3.4 magnitude earthquake was caused by geothermal extraction—a risk inherent in the technology used. Future projects in the U.S. will have to steer clear of population centers and larger fault lines, less a chain reaction is caused.

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