Can Geothermal Power Help China Meet its Energy Needs?

If properly harnessed, geothermal energy systems could help China meet its growing energy needs, providing a reliable source of power that comes with negligible carbon emissions. On Friday the Shanghai Institute of Geological Engineering Exploration announced geothermal heating and cooling systems may soon be deployed in the city of Shanghai, saving residents money on energy bills in the long term.

The kind of geothermal setup the Institute has in mind utilizes an air exchange system to draw energy from about 650 feet (200 meters) beneath the ground’s surface. At this depth, underground temperatures tend to stay around 77 degrees Fahrenheit, and can be tapped year round to keep building temperatures fairly constant. The system could be used not only for heating during the winter, but also to keep buildings cool in summer. Since summer air conditioning is one of the most energy-hungry home enterprises, this could truly make a significant dent in residential carbon emissions.

The upfront cost of a geothermal heating and cooling system would be about 50% greater for homeowners, but over time the system would pay for itself. With reliable coal and oil supplies tightening in China, this ratio could shift over time to put geothermal systems at even more of an advantage. Considering it has the fastest growing economy in the world, China will not be able to meet its energy needs forever and a quick transition to renewable energy simply makes sense.

Using geothermal energy to help power the economy is not a new idea in China. Most of the country’s headline-grabbing clean energy investments have been in wind and solar projects, but China is also exploring its geothermal resources. Last year the Chinese Sinopec Star Petroleum Company announced an agreement with Geysir Green Energy of Iceland, to build geothermal power stations in the northeastern part of the country. China is attempting to build long term geothermal partnerships with Iceland, which has been more successful than any other country in the world at harnessing energy from underground.

Of course as with any energy source, tapping geothermal power can cause problems if it isn’t done properly. The heat exchange systems that could soon start popping up in Shanghai could cause ground water pollution if not done properly. However considering the serious environmental effects connected with burning fossil fuels and China’s desperate need for new sources of low-carbon energy, the benefits of using geothermal power on a large scale seem to greatly outweigh the costs.

Today China is the world’s biggest energy user and the largest annual emitter of greenhouse gases that cause global warming. As energy demand continues to rise in China, the stakes couldn’t be higher in the search for clean energy alternatives to fossil fuels. There will be no silver bullet for China’s energy problems, but it seems only logical for the country to make use of every clean energy source at its disposal. Geothermal power will almost certainly be a part of how China meets its energy needs in the future.

Photo credit: ThinkGeoEnergy