History of Geothermal Energy

Geothermal energy has existed since the formation of earth about 4.6 billion years ago.   With the Paleo-Indians settlement 10,000 years ago, hot springs and natural pools have been used for cooking, bathing, and warmth. Since then, many new technologies have been developed that can go down more than 10 miles in the lookout for geothermal energy.

Let’s have a brief insight into the history of geothermal energy.

History of Geothermal Energy

The timeline of the history of geothermal energy in the United States looks a lot like this.

Starting year Ending year
1800 1850
1851 1900
1901 1950
1951 1960
1961 1970
1971 1980
1981 1990
1991 2000
2001 2010
2011 present

In the Paleolithic era, hot springs were used for bathing purposes for the first time. This simple use of geothermal energy was further developed by the Romans around the first century AD.

Development of Geothermal Power Technologies Overtime

Geothermal energy had a major breakthrough as a power source around the year 1904. The first geothermal generator ever tested was in the Larderello dry steam field of Italy. The man responsible for the testing was Piero Ginori Conti. This generator worked to provide power for five lightbulbs.

Piero Ginori Conti later developed the technology and built the very first geothermal power plant. It came to function around 1911 at the Devil’s Valley (Valle del Diavolo) in Larderello, Italy. This geothermal power plant was the world’s only one geo power plant until 1922 and supplied electricity for the Italian railway system.

Emergence of Geothermal Energy Over the Years

1. The year 1800 – 1850

  • 1807

When European settlers moved across the continent towards the west, they headed towards the spring of warmth. The first European to encounter hot springs was John Colter, in 1807.

These settlers even founded Arkansas, the city of Hot Springs, where Asa Thompson charged a dollar each for using a wooden tub with three spring-fed baths, in 1830. This is the first known commercial utilization of geothermal energy.

  • 1847

A member of John C. Fremont’s survey party, William Bell Elliot came across a steaming valley, namely The Geysers, in the north of San Francisco, California.

2. The year 1851 – 1900

  • 1852

The Geysers were turned into a spa known as The Geysers Resort Hotel.

  • 1862

A businessman, Sam Brannan invested about half a million dollars in the springs situated southeast of The Geysers. It was developed with hotels, racetracks, skating pavilion and bathhouses.

  • 1864

The millennials built homes and residences near the springs to fully utilize the natural heat of geothermal springs. However, the first time these hot springs were used on a large scale was after the construction of Hot Lake Hotel La Grande, Oregon.

  • 1892

The water was sent from hot springs to buildings through pipes. The people in Boise, Idaho, experienced the first district heating system of the world. After a few years, this system could provide enough for 200 homes and 40 downtown businesses.

As of today, Boise has four district heating systems serving over 5 million square feet of business, residents, and governmental space. Moreover, the United States has 17 district heating systems and dozens more around the globe.

  • 1900

This year, the hot spring water was piped into homes of Klamath Falls, Oregon.

3. The year 1901 – 1950

  • 1904

Prince Piero Ginori Conti invented the first geothermal power plant in Tuscany, Italy.

  • 1921

The USA’s first geothermal power plant went into operation in the year 1921. John d. Grant channels the steam from the first well and constructs a second well. Likewise, after the construction of a few more wells, it was able to produce 250 kilowatts of electricity. However, this plant couldn’t compete and fell into disuse.

In Arkansas, a hot spring national park is created.

  • 1927

At Imperial Valley, California, the Pioneer development company drilled the very first exploratory wells.

  • 1930

In 1926, the greenhouse commercialization of geothermal energy, with a 1000-foot well drilled for the first time in Boise, Idaho.

Around the same time, Charlie Lieb builds the first downhole heat exchanger (DHE) in order to warm his house. As of now, you will find more than 500 DHEs used around the country.

  • 1940

The first residential space heating begins in Moana area in Reno, Nevada

  • 1948

An Ohio State University Professor, Carl Nielsen developed the first ground-source heat pump and took geothermal technology eastward.

4. The year 1951 – 1960

  • 1960

A geothermal power plant at The Geysers.

5. The year 1961 – 1970

  • 1970

A Geothermal Resources Council is formed to manage and encourage the development of geothermal resources all over the world.

6. The year 1971 – 1980

  • 1972

The GEA (Geothermal Energy Association) was established in 1972. It comprised U.S. companies responsible for developing resources globally for direct-heat uses and electricity generation.

  • 1973

In October, the oil crisis started and many countries started to look for renewable energy sources.

The National Science Foundation became a lead agency for federal geothermal programs.

  • 1974

The U.S. government enacted the Geothermal Energy Research, Development and Demonstration (RD&D) act. It institutes the geothermal loan guaranty program that provides investment security to private as well as public sectors using developing technologies.

  • 1975

The formation of the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), as well as Geo-Heat center, took place in 1975. The center, established in Oregon Institute Technology conducted applied research on using geothermal resources with low to moderate temperature.

The U.S. Geological Survey released the first national estimate and inventory of geothermal resources.

  • 1977

The formation of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

  • 1978

Several water-dominated resources were developed as a result of The Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act enacted this year. The first geothermal food-processing plant (Geothermal Food Processors, Inc) was opened in Brady Hot Springs, Nevada.

In Fenton Hill, New Mexico, a hot dry rock geothermal facility is established. The financial assistance is provided from DOE. It generates electricity after two years, in 1980.

  • 1979

An electrical development of a water-dominated geothermal resource for the first time. The DOE funded direct-use demonstration projects due to which several businesses got the district heating system, and agribusinesses.

  • 1980

The Union Oil Company of California (UNOCAL) built the country’s first geothermal flash plant generating 10 MW of power. The geothermal energy is used in cooking, distilling, and drying processing of alcohol fuel production.

7. The year 1981 – 1990

  • 1981

Ormat demonstrates binary technology with a supporting loan from DOE. It took place in the Imperial Valley of California and helped to establish the technical feasibility of large-scale commercial binary power plants. This project was a huge success, and Ormat repaid the loan back within a year.

The first electricity generated from geothermal resources in Hawaii.

  • 1982

The use of crystallizer-clarifier technology-enabled economical electrical generation at California’s Salton Sea geothermal field.

  • 1984

A 20 MW plant started generating power at Utah’s Roosevelt Hot Springs.

A 1.3 MW binary power plant’s operation generated the first geothermal electricity in Nevada.

  • 1987

Near the Round Mountain in Nevada, the first geothermal-enhanced heap leaching project used geothermal fluids for gold recovery.

  • 1989

The world’s first hybrid geopressure-geothermal power plant began to operate at Pleasant Bayou, Texas. It used both heat and methane from a geopressured resource.

8. The year 1991 – 2000

  • 1991

The Bonneville Power Administration selected three sites for geothermal demonstration projects in the Pacific Northwest.

  • 1992

In the Puna field of Hawaii, an electrical generation started at the 25MW geothermal plant.

  • 1993

At Steamboat Springs, Nevada, a 23 MW binary power plant project is completed.

  • 1994

DOE made two collaborative efforts (industry and government), to promote the use of geothermal energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

One of its efforts was focused on the development of geothermal energy for electricity generation. The other effort aimed towards the accelerated use of geothermal heat pumps to heat up homes and buildings.

  • 2000

With an initial group of 21 partnerships, the DOE encouraged the development of geothermal resources by initiating its Geopowering the West Program. This took place in the western U.S. funded to develop new technologies.

9. The year 2001 – 2010

  • 2003

The Utah Geothermal Working Group is formed.

  • 2005

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 was enacted. This policy provided tax incentives and loan guarantees which changed the U.S. energy policy for different types of energy production. The policy also included changes directed on making geothermal energy competitive with fossil fuels in electricity generation.

According to the U.S. Department of Interior’s  Bureau of Land Management, geothermal energy generated more than 14,800 GWh of electricity in 2005. It is enough to serve the annual needs of about 1.3 million homes.

  • 2007

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 provided authorization and direction for activities related to DOE’s geothermal research.

  • 2009

In 38 states and the District of Columbia, the Geothermal Technologies Office gave out awards of $368.2 million to 149 geothermal projects.

  • 2010

The DOE Geothermal Technologies Office granted $94,000 to (STTR) Small Business Technology Transfer Program and $786,000 to (SBIR) Small Business Innovation Research Program for geothermal projects.

10. The year 2011 – 2013

  • 2011 / 2012

The U.S. geothermal industry grew steadily in 2011 and in the first quarter of 2012. Over this time frame, the companies increased geothermal capacity from 3102 MW to 3187 MW.

  • 2012

The (EGS) Enhanced Geothermal Systems field demonstration project achieved a steam production similar to 5 MW at an abandoned part of The Geysers, North California.

This encouraged the idea that with further development, the vast energy source can be scaled up for nationwide deployment in the future.

  • 2013

The DOE invested in a project that allowed it to take advantage of closed-loop geothermal electricity generators. It generated zero-emission electricity for less than 6cents/kWh.

Pros and Cons of Geothermal Energy

Pros Cons
Environment-friendly Requires a large amount of land
Highly Sustainable Greenhouse emissions
Low maintenance cost High investment cost
Reliable Source of energy Depletion of geothermal sources
Highly-efficient Surface Instability

Geothermal Energy Today


Channeling power from geothermal energy has both pros as well as cons. However, this energy source has more benefits for the modern world. Geothermal energy can highly minimize the use of fossil fuels and supply 10 to 20% of the world’s energy requirement by 2050.

With proper research and innovation, we can easily overcome its disadvantages. The reality of climate change is so obvious with the rise of sea levels and melting glaciers. But, with this alternative energy source turning more affordable and easy, we can save our environment.

Final Words,

The development of geothermal energy technologies has changed drastically over the years, we can expect to see some powerful and more efficient power plants in the near future.

Using geothermal energy along with solar, hydroelectricity, and wind energy can help in reducing our dependence on non-renewable energy sources.