Geothermal Energy Project May Have Caused an Earthquake

By Brett Israel | September 17, 2009 7:00 am

geothermal_webGeothermal energy, a promising but increasing controversial type of alternative energy, is on the hot seat again, this time in a German town that experienced an earthquake that some are blaming on the local geothermal power plant. A government panel is investigating claims that the plant triggered a magnitude-2.7 earthquake on 15 August in the town of Landau…. If the panel finds against the company that built the plant, Geox of Landau, it could be shut down [New Scientist].

Geox hasn’t been very vocal about the cause of the quake, but company officials initially denied any responsibility for the temblor and continue to dispute the government’s data linking the project to the quake. The panel will, among other things, have to sort through the conflicting data presented by the company and government scientists [The New York Times].

Geothermal plants often require drilling several miles underground, and then pumping hot water into small cracks in rocks, which causes them to expand and release a surge of steam—just like popping a lid off a soda bottle—then the steam rises and spins a turbine [Scientific American]. Critics say that pushing pressurized fluids through deep geological formations triggers the quakes.

Proponents of geothermal technology say it can produce huge amounts of steady, clean energy. But this isn’t the first time a geothermal plant has come under fire. In 2006 in Basel, Switzerland a geothermal project set off an earthquake, shaking and damaging buildings and terrifying many [The New York Times]. Another geothermal project in Northern California drew heavy protests, and was recently shut down due to engineering problems.

Related Content:
80beats: Geothermal Explosion Highlights a Downside of a Leading Alt-Energy Source
80beats: Drillers Tap Into a 1000-Degree Magma Chamber by Accident
80beats: Google Invests in Energy From Hot Rocks Deep Underground
DISCOVER: The Great Forgotten Clean-Energy Source: Geothermal

Image: flickr / stevecoutts

  • Frank

    That’s as crazy as those fools who drilled to tap methane on the sea bed. Frozen methane is stable, but once it warms it is explosively volatile. There could be a chain reaction as the sea bed roils up like an enormous volcano.

    How can we make it to the next level as a species if we do such obvious things to destroy ourselves? I understand the ignorance of those who spoil the planet, not knowing the long term implications of their actions. It’s the wanton, brazen stupidity of greedy people that know better who seals our fate.

  • Neil Lindsay

    One should not forget that one such event does not indicate a trend. One earthquake at any location cannot be blamed on any specific activity, in that the earthquake just might have be ready to occur at that time regardless of any external forces.

    If the earthquakes were to continue then there might be some cause for alarm. Until then to blame someone for a specific natural event is very short sighted.

  • Mark

    Let’s keep this in perspective… even standing directly over it, you can barely feel a 2.7 on the Richter scale. It’s a logarithmic scale, so a 5.0, which might cause minor damage, has an amplitude 200 times greater than a 2.7. The USGS estimates that there are over a million earthquakes between 2.0 and 3.0 on the Richter scale in the world each year (

  • shawn

    The potential socio-economic, political, and global benefits of geothermal power far outweigh even the over-hyped risk. I am certainly interested in scientific before and after statistics. Who say’s that initiating earthquakes is a bad thing? (I have not researched this) In my limited understanding of tectonics, multiple small releases of energy might actually stave off larger more devastating (to urban centers) earthquake events. Thoughts from experts?

    Go Geothermal… More power to you!

    Also, in my opinion, “greed”, in the business sense, generates innovation. Depending on your perspective and prejudice, this innovation can be either beneficial to the “species”, or detrimental, I simply advise against pointing the finger of blame at greed as a whole.

  • Margie Melius

    Absolutely terrifying I felt it in Buffalo

  • Jessie

    gotta agree with Shawn, we have to keep our perspectives right when it comes to geothermal power and its potential “risks”. Overall, geo is going to be well worth it in the long run. Guess I’m biased though, we use it in our home for heating and cooling and love it!
    -Jessie, the flow center girl


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