The Benefits of Geothermal Energy Outweigh The Risks (Opposing)

Published: Sunday, 03 February 2013 Written by Sherri Jeffrey

Speaker 1 – Gabrielle St. Hilaire (3-2)

(Environmental repercussions)

INTRODUCTION

A heartfelt good afternoon to you, Mr. Moderator, esteemed judges, fellow debaters, teachers, students, ladies and gentlemen.

This afternoon I stand here to oppose the topic “The benefits of geothermal energy outweigh the risks”.

Simply what I am proposing to you is that – the benefits of geothermal energy, though many, are not enough to outweigh the risks that must be taken in order to obtain and use it. 

The foundation of the arguments which I will propound in support of my position is established in an elucidation of the key terms of my proposition that the risks of geothermal energy outweigh the benefits. These terms are “geothermal energy, benefits, risks and outweigh”.

According to dictionary.com, geothermal energy may be defined as
Energy
 obtained by tapping underground reservoirs of heat, usually near volcanoes or other hot spots on the surface of the Earth.  

The other three key terms, as defined by the Precise Oxford English Dictionary are as follows:

Benefits: something that is advantageous or good; an advantage

Risks: exposure to the chance of injury or loss; a hazard or dangerous chance

Outweigh: to exceed in value, importance, influence.

Based on the afore mentioned terms, I can now declare that my argument will seek to prove to all gathered here that the advantages or good of geothermal energy do not in any way exceed in value or importance when compared to the exposure to the chance of injury or loss of such a risky and dangerous venture. I base my argument on three points:

  1. Harvesting engineered geothermal energy threatens terrain stability
  2. Geothermal energy is not a reliable form of energy
  3. The byproducts of geothermal energy pose threats to the environment

 POINT 1

 To begin, harvesting engineered geothermal energy threatens terrain stability.

Engineered geothermal systems are built on pockets of geothermal activity found within the Earth’s crust that possess a temperature of no less than 350 degrees Fahrenheit. To get to the areas of this temperature, the engineers must drill.

Now, Mister Moderator, let us consider the two places within the Earth’s crust where these high temperatures can be found: the first is miles below the surface of the earth and the second near areas of volcanic activity.

 To get to the first location, miles below the surface of the earth’s crust, holes must be drilled through hot rock, the beginning of a process called “fracturing”. This unnatural movement in the Earth’s crust causes the hot rock to slip and collapse upon itself.

 James Glanz, a Pulitzer Prize winner and well known journalist at the New York Times wrote an article in 2010 that summed up the greatest danger of the fracturing process:

 “The technique used to tap geothermal energy creates earthquakes because it requires injecting water at great pressure down drilled holes to fracture the deep bedrock. The opening of each fracture is, literally, a tiny earthquake (tremor) in which the subterranean stresses rip apart a weak vein, a crack in the rock. The high pressure water can be thought of loosely as a lubricant that makes it easier for those forces to slide the earth along the weak points, creating a web or network of fractures.”

 A good example of the danger of fracturing is the documentation of the attempt of the erection of a geothermal plant in Basel, Switzerland in December 2006 where no less than 10,000 seismic events, primarily in the form of aftershocks, were triggered nearing up to 3.4 on the Richter scale, over only the first six days of the project. This earthquake caused millions of dollars worth of damage in Basel, a town located many miles away with a population of 167,000 people, not to mention many minutes of terror as the earth shook and split beneath their feet. The project was shut down permanently in December 2009 after a government study determined that earthquakes generated by the project were likely to do many more millions worth in damages.

 Is the risk of triggering any sort of seismic activity really worth the generation of geothermal energy? And, no, Mister Moderator, I have not forgotten the other area in which pockets of high temperature can be found – near areas of volcanic activity, that is, areas where there are volcanoes. However, Mister Moderator, I think that it goes without saying that earthquakes and volcanoes should be kept as far apart from each other as possible. As if one natural disaster caused by unnatural means would not be enough, would it really be wise to tempt the gods by triggering an earthquake anywhere near a volcano, active or otherwise? The answer to that is definitely not.  

 Ergo, I am sure we all agree that a single tremor is scary enough and the mere possibility of a fully fledged earthquake definitely outweighs any benefit that geothermal energy may bring, especially to this small and volcanic country that we live in.

 POINT 2

 Secondly, geothermal energy is not a reliable form of energy

First off, geothermal exploration and location is difficult, with the main disadvantages of building a geothermal energy plant lying in the exploration stage. After various field surveys, geologists have come to the conclusion that few areas are actually suitable for geothermal energy development. According a paper written by the environmental group Energy Consumer’s Edge titled "Pros and cons of geothermal":

"Using current technologies, geothermal power is primarily available where hot magma finds its way close to the surface and heats ground water to usable temperatures above 212F. These hydrothermal hot spots don’t occur everywhere."

This means that areas which do not possess the features necessary for taping of geothermal energy are at a distinct advantage, and, like the oil sheiks will be able to hold a monopoly on exporting of geothermal energy. This brings in the question of how much energy exactly can be generated from each site and what effect it would have on the immediate environment of the site.

Although geothermal sites are capable of providing heat for many decades, eventually specific locations may cool down. Since these sites can cool down over time, geothermal sites can not truly be called “renewable” as renewable resources and sites means that it is self-sustaining. The cooling down of geothermal sites is most often attributed to geothermal energy systems that were too large for the designated site since there is only so much energy that can be stored and replenished in a given volume of earth. Therefore, geologists agree that specific geothermal locations can undergo depletion. In addition to this depletion, geothermal sites can unexpectedly run out of energy. A study done in 2012 by Clean Energy Ideas, a green energy watch group in the United States titled "Disadvantages of Geothermal Energy" quoted the following results:

Another big disadvantage of geothermal energy extraction, is that in many cases, a site that has happily been extracting steam and turning it into power for many years, may suddenly stop producing steam. This can happen and last for around 10 years in some cases."

Further, even if a spot does not cool completely, the output of geothermal power plants degrades over time. This can take place in the span of several years or a decade if a field is poorly managed.

Mister Moderator, think of Dominica who proposes to rely on geothermal electricity for approximately 15% of our overall electricity use. At current, when DOMLEC withholds electricity from our houses for only a few hours the whole island begins to grumble. Imagine if we have become accustomed to using geothermal energy and one day, the production of it is halted. One day may turn into one year and one year into ten! The return to other forms of energy would have to be swift and complete to meet the needs of those affected by a stop in geothermal energy loss. Further, think of the plans to export electricity from geothermal energy. This risk of discontinuity of energy production is certainly not good for the markets or energy consumers.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, geothermal plants often blow-out as, by tapping into often volatile geothermal energy, can often result in major blowouts. The fires caused by these blowouts have been known to rage out of control for days which would also stop production of energy.

Clearly, Mister Moderator, the risk of an interruption or a complete stop of an energy source would not be worth the short term benefits that would be derived from using this energy source.

 POINT 3

 Thirdly, the byproducts of geothermal energy pose threats to the environment.

 Mister Moderator, imagine a geothermal power plant from which, to the untrained eye, a cloud of smoke is simply rising. This ‘smoke’ is actuality is the water steam rising from the cooling tower, which begs the question, ‘is this steam harmful to the environment and human health?’

 Geothermal fluids contain a mixture of dissolved gases which are refined during the production of geothermal energy. The main types of emissions are notably:

 Nitrogen Oxide which is responsible for lung irritation, coughing, smog formation, as well as water quality deterioration.

 Sulfur Oxide which causes wheezing, congestion and respiratory illness as well as various ecosystem damages especially acid rain.

 Particulate Matter which causes asthma, bronchitis, atmospheric deposition and even cancerous diseases.

 Along with carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, methane and ammonia.

 All these pollutants directly contribute to acid rain, noxious smells and deterioration of human, animal and environmental health if released into the atmosphere. Arguably, most plants that experience high levels of acids and volatile chemicals are usually equipped with emission-control systems to reduce the exhaust, but reducing is not eliminating and even the reduction is very risky business.

Further, there is the issue of heat – the very thing that creates the energy. Mister Moderator, geothermal energy harmfully releases heat into atmosphere – it relies on geothermal heat! Geothermal energy transfers that heat to the surface to boil water and generate electricity and, as such, much of the heat is released into the atmosphere through steam. The process releases almost TWICE as much heat into the atmosphere as nuclear plants. The concern is that the release of this heat will contribute to global warming, particularly if deployed on a large scale. Note here that the argument is not the cooling of the earth as the earth's heat budget is continually replenished by the radioactive decay of naturally occurring elements and almost all of the energy associated with each decay event is converted to heat; or the heat content of the geothermal reservoir rocks is continually replenished by conduction of heat from the earth's deeper interior.

No.

The argument is the further heating of the already hot atmosphere, speeding up the process of global warming.

Finally, in addition to these dissolved gasses and heat clouds, hot water from geothermal sources may hold in solution trace amounts of toxic elements such as mercury, boron, antimony and arsenic, a well known poison that countless wives have used to permanently punish their unfaithful husbands. On that note, ladies and gentlemen, I am sure that I need not continue to emphasise the havoc that would ensue if these contaminants were to ever reach a water source.

To tally up, we have seen the negative impact of geothermal energy in the forms of global warming, air pollution and water pollution. And let us not discount the noise pollution that is created by the constant drilling in search of geothermal hot spots.

CONCLUSION

Clearly, ladies and gentlemen, the three points I have presented, namely,

  1. Harvesting engineered geothermal energy threatens terrain stability
  2. Geothermal energy is not a reliable form of energy
  3. The byproducts of geothermal energy pose threats to the environment prove that the benefits of geothermal energy do not in fact outweigh the risks.

 Mister Moderator, it may in all fairness be argued that no energy source is perfect, and that with development there must be some measure of risk. However, sacrificing our environment and our good health should never be an option, no matter the benefits. For, Mister Moderator, what is life if not the quality of the experience that each human has in the comfort of a stable and healthy environment? As Marcus Valerius Martialis a Latin poet known for his twelve books of Epigrams once said:

 “Life is not merely being alive, but being well.

THANK YOU.

 Speaker 2 – Alex-Maree Roberts (5-A)

(Economical repercussions)

INTRODUCTION

A hearty good afternoon to all. I request permission to adopt the protocol established by my colleague as I present to you three more points supporting our argument that the benefits of geothermal energy do not outweigh the risks:

  1. Geothermal power plants are expensive to build and maintain
  2. Geothermal energy is not sufficient to cut oil dependency
  3. Geothermal energy production plants may harm the livelihoods of the surrounding communities

 POINT 1

 Firstly, geothermal power plants are expensive to build and maintain.

 This may seem a somewhat dubious point as research shows that to produce geothermal energy, there are little refinement costs and large amounts of energy can be generated with minimal effort – all you need is the site, a plant, pipes, turbines and energy cells.

 All in all geothermal energy is indeed cheap to generate, however mister moderator, as goes the popular saying in Dominica “Cheapness is worryness”. And the worriness come in the building and maintenance of the geothermal energy plant.

 The average geothermal power plant requires drilling which costs two to three times as much as oil drilling, and current technology limits bore-hole depths to 30,000 ft.

 Geothermal heat pumps can also encounter significant maintenance problems. Common heat pump problems involve low airflow, leaky ducts, and incorrect refrigerant charge which are all costly to correct and maintain.

 Furthermore, the spot in which the geothermal plant is built will eventually become useless sooner rather than later, and the wearing out and scaring of the surrounding environment will cause irreparable damage every time a new plant has to be built.

 All in all, to build a geothermal energy plant there is an ever present oil cost which is incurred whenever you use drills, a construction cost per building or other essential part of the plant that has to be erected, among many other necessary expenses.

 The risk in this spending comes in the form of questionable returns on the substantial investment which must be made in order to create the geothermal energy plant. In order to secure this so called “cheap energy”, it must remain sustainable for many years in order to justify the expenditure that was used in building it.

 POINT 2

Secondly, Geothermal energy is not sufficient to cut oil dependency

The cost of oil is rising every day, Mister Moderator, and each and every time we receive our electricity bills we feel the bite. In this regard, many have said that the world is addicted to oil. In the words of Ralph Nader, an American political activist,

The use of solar energy has not been opened up because the oil industry does not own the sun”. 

In essence, the oil industry has a hold on the world, running a monopoly that everyone must pay their dues to in one way or another. Geothermal energy has been heralded as one of the ways in which energy will become green and plentiful. However, Mister Moderator, geothermal energy is not a viable source upon which a country will be able to cut oil dependencies as it is incapable of producing the volumes of energy needed to run the world. This is because geothermal energy is not available in massive quantities to all countries.

Moreover, many geothermal engines operate at an inefficient low temperature. Geothermal energy operates at a relatively low temperature (compared to steam from boilers), which by the laws of thermodynamics limits the efficiency of the engine. Even further than this, geothermal energy is often located too far away from populated areas. The development of geothermal reservoirs is often unfeasible because they are too far from major population centres. This adds to the cost of transmitting electricity, which is higher over long distances. This may not be true of our immediate communities in Dominica as the island is small, but one must factor in the cost of exporting this geothermal energy to Martinique and Guadeloupe as was proposed by the Minister of Energy, Hon. Rayburn Blackmore in a press statement made on January 10, 2013 at a meeting of the Government of Dominica in collaboration with Regional Councils of Guadeloupe and Martinique.

Iceland is usually cited as the success story for the use of geothermal energy – they have effectively managed to harness their geothermal power and have profited from producing and using it. However, Iceland is an exceptional case for geothermal energy as it possesses an extraordinary geothermal environment. The amount of geothermal energy there is much greater than in other countries. Also, the cold weather makes geothermal energy particularly fitting for heating homes there. Finally, the small size of Iceland's population makes it possible for geothermal to provide a larger portion of the country's energy demands than would otherwise be reasonably possible.

Mister Moderator, the financial risk in trying to secure geothermal energy, especially for export when it is so unreliable, so inefficient and cannot be produced in enough volume to meet the needs of the world is ill advised. For that matter, why risk the security of the already existing forms of energy production for one that is fickle?

 POINT 3

 Thirdly, bringing our argument closer to home, on our very island of Dominica, Geothermal energy production plants may harm the livelihoods of the surrounding communities.

Mister Moderator, The geothermal energy industry DOES NOT create jobs. The only jobs and technology that geothermal exploitation creates are those "taken away" from the oil exploration. It uses exactly the same technology and qualified personnel that the oil industry uses. This is a zero-sum game which will not benefit the local community where the geothermal plant is proposed to be placed.

Further, geothermal energy plants look and operate like coal plants. An observation made by Unleash the Future, an online magazine which catalogues the advancement of different technologies,

Geothermal energy is not glamorous—its plants look more like coal-fired power plants than sleek, modern wind turbines or space-age solar mirrors in the desert."

Considering the reputation of our island for being “a feast for the senses” especially the sense of sight, an aesthetically displeasing geothermal plant smack in the middle of the Roseau Valley where many of our tourism sites are located including Screw’s Sulphur Spa, Tia’s Sulphur Spa, Trafalgar Falls, Titou Gorge and Boeri Lake, would mar what the tourists, especially eco-tourists, come to the island to see. Further, the aesthetics is not even the primary concern when thinking of a geothermal power plant. The degradation of the surrounding environment, especially the sulphur springs, is going to end up as naught more than collateral damage in the aspiration to obtain geothermal energy. As my colleague previously stated, various toxins may seep into the water, making the various sulphur spring spas, a thriving business in Wotten Waven, dangerous to bathe in. This prime example shows how much damage a geothermal plant would do to our local community tourism, delivering a swift blow to the pockets of our countrymen who are trying to make a living.

 In essence, Madam Moderator, it is economically risky and outright unsound in these hard economic times to tamper with the resources which are creating employment in our communities to replace it with a geothermal plant. It may indeed be argued that by building the plant the county may be able to produce money, and the electricity bills of these same residents will be significantly reduced. In answer to this Mister Moderator, I point out that the money the government would generate from the geothermal plant would serve to build infrastructure such as roads to the same spas and other business which have been rendered useless, and in order to pay any bill, low or otherwise, one needs to be able to earn a living.

Finally, ladies and gentlemen, let us be reminded of the noisy nature of geothermal plants which operates in a similar way to coal power plants, with steam driving electrical generators. This process involves many moving parts, and is often very noisy. Whatever community business that manages to survive the degradation of the environment will be bombarded by a noisy environment which is still not conducive to attracting tourists and eco-tourists who are interested in sounds of nature.

 CONCLUSION

As can be seen, these 3 additional points undoubtedly support the case that the benefits of geothermal energy do not outweigh the risks:

  1. Geothermal power plants are expensive to build and maintain
  2. Geothermal energy is not sufficient to cut oil dependency
  3. Geothermal energy production plants may harm the livelihoods of the surrounding communities

These three points undoubtedly affirmation that geothermal energy is fraught with financial risk: risk of overbearing overheads in the beginning of production, risk of not being able to meet the demands of a power needy world and risk of destroying the local livelihoods of entire communities.

Mister Moderator, I have no doubt that based on my argument and the argument of my colleague, that it has become obvious that the benefits of geothermal energy in no way outweigh the risks.

 THANK YOU.

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