Geothermal Sustainability or Heat Mining?

  • Ladislaus Rybach Department of Earth Sciences, ETH Zurich, Institute of Geophysics, Zurich
Keywords: Production sustainability criteria, resource regeneration timescales, geothermal heat pumps, power plants, direct-use doublets, EGS


Heat mining” is, in fact a complete deceptive misnomer. When a mineral deposit (e.g. copper) is mined and the ore has been taken out, it will be gone forever. Not so with geothermal resources: The heat and the fluid are coming back! Namely, the heat and fluid extraction create heat sinks and hydraulic minima; around these, strong temperature and pressure gradients develop. Along the gradients, natural inflow of heat and fluid arises to replenish the deficits. The inflow from the surroundings can be strong: around borehole heat exchangers, heat flow densities of several W/m2 result, whereas terrestrial heat flow amounts only to about 50 – 100 mW/m2.

The regeneration of geothermal resources after production, in other words, extraction of fluid and/or heat) is a process that runs over different timescales, depending on the kind and size of the utilization system, the production rate, and the resource characteristics. The resource renewal depends directly on the heat/fluid backflow rate. Heat, respectively fluid production from geothermal resources can be accomplished with different withdrawal rates. Although forced production is more attractive financially (with quick payback), it can nevertheless degrade the resource permanently. The longevity of the resource (and thus the sustainability of production) can be ensured by moderate production rates. The sustainable geothermal production level depends on the utilization technology as well as on the local geologic conditions. The stipulation of the sustainable production level requires specific clarifications, especially by numerical modelling, based on long-term production strategies. In general, resource regeneration proceeds asymptotically: strong at the beginning and slowing down subsequently, reaching the original conditions only after infinite time. However, regeneration to 95 % can be achieved much earlier, e.g. within the lifetime of the extraction/production system. In other words, geothermal resources may under certain circumstances may be considered as having potential regrowth, like biomass. Concerning the requirements for such sustainable production, it is convenient to consider four resource types and utilization schemes. These may be treated by numerical model simulations that consider heat extraction by geothermal heat pumps, hydrothermal aquifer, used by a doublet system for space heating, high enthalpy two-phase reservoir, tapped to generate electricity, and enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS).