Geothermal Energy: Too Dangerous?
Geothermal energy represents one of man's earliest forms of renewable energy. Before the arrival of the Europeans, native populations such as the Maori in New Zealand, and many Native American tribes, used hot springs for cooking, heating, preserving food, and for medicinal and therapeutic properties. Using geothermal water for such uses did not adversely affect nor modify any geothermal features nor caused damages to communities.
To many of us, geothermal energy is generally considered to be environmentally friendly, and a good alternative to fossil fuel consumption as it supposedly does not cause significant amounts of pollution. On the surface, the ability to extract energy from the Earth itself sounds safe, it sounds like an ideal situation. But what is being implemented in such close proximity to residential areas in the Roseau Valley is anything but ideal.
Geothermal energy cannot and should not be put to use without first dealing with the hazards associated with it.
Dominica, especially the Roseau Valley, is well known for its natural features such as hot springs, mud pools, and fumaroles. These will be irreparably damaged by geothermal development. This happened in Wairakei in New Zealand in the late 1950s when a geothermal field was tapped for power generation. The withdrawal of hot fluids from the underground reservoir caused long term damage to their then famous Geyser Valley, and hot springs and geysers died as the supply of steaming water from below was depleted. In 1965 three million litres of water was pumped into the Geyser Valley to try to restore it, but the damage had already been done. The whole valley was shut down as a tourist spectacle in 1973. Will this story be repeated in the Roseau Valley a few years from now?
Because of the underground contact between hot fluids and rocks, geothermal fluids contain high levels of arsenic, mercury, lithium and boron. If, through improper management, any waste is released into the river instead of being injected into the geothermal field, these pollutants will damage aquatic life and make our water unsafe for drinking and irrigation.
Furthermore, activities such as well- drilling will affect the local ecological resources by disturbing habitat and creating noise at the project sites. These activities have the potential to disrupt the breeding, migration, and foraging behaviour of, and destroying or injuring wildlife in Laudat, Trafalgar, Wotton Waven, Morne Prosper and other neighbouring communities.
We also must take into consideration the fact that geothermal fluids contain dissolved gases which are released into the atmosphere. The main toxic gases are carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrogen sulphide (H2S). Both are denser than air and are a recognised hazard for people.
There are a few questions that I want to pose here. I want to ask these questions on behalf of the persons within the affected communities who may feel themselves to be voiceless- the babies, young children and the elderly.
- Firstly, what are the exact acreage requirements for the various geothermal plants? I'm not just taking about the amount of land needed for the power plant itself, but also for well-field development and equipment, including the pipeline system, as well as land which will be needed for running the transmission lines.
- Can anyone tell the residents of the Roseau Valley what type of emissions would be given off not just from combustion engines and the geothermal power plant electricity generation but also from the proposed heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems to be used and from particulate emissions released from the cooling tower drifts and from well blowouts?
- How will the waste generated from the plants be managed? Where will the produced geothermal fluids be routed to? What about the remaining sludge? Who will be responsible for its removal and where will be the designated or licensed off-site locations for its disposal?
- We know that colossal amounts of water will be needed for cooling the power plants and for reinjection to replenish the geothermal reservoir. From what sources will such large quantities of water be obtained?
- Geothermal plants have a life span of up to fifty years –maximum. What are the plans for the decommissioning and site reclamation phases? What will happen when the wells are abandoned and structures removed?
- Who will be responsible for monitoring rock movements and seismic activity within the area?
- What forms of compensation, if any, will the vendors and local entrepreneurs such as Tia, with his hot sulphur spa, receive when their source of livelihood is lost?
I think that we as a people, we do want to create green, sustainable ways of using energy. But do we have to put ourselves at great health risk to power the electric grids of Guadeloupe and Martinique?
Fortunately for us, we have an abundance of sunshine, wind, and wave power available to meet our needs. What is being done to develop these?
The energy produced by geothermal is not cheap nor is geothermal power production clean. Toxic chemicals are injected into the ground, and the steam coming off the vents are highly hazardous. If such a plant was being built in an area far away from residential communities, then I don't think that there would be such opposition. However, no geothermal plant in the world is sited so close to people's homes primarily due to the negative impacts people may suffer from exposure to hydrogen sulphide and uncontrolled venting events.
The geothermal energy potential that we as an island possess does not have to be under-utilised, but can be used for a number of processes where heat is required.
Like New Zealand, we could invest in geothermal prawn farming, which has been a successful industry since 1987. We can make use of our geothermal waters for horticulture, especially for the commercial, out-of-season production of flowers, vegetables and fruit. There is also the possibility of using geothermal energy to develop a crop and timber drying industry.
However, until and unless, we can come up with ways that can negate the disadvantages discussed above, exploiting geothermal energy on the island should be shelved.