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Thermal energy is the energy that determines the temperature of matter. Earth’s internal heat is thermal energy generated from radioactive decay and continual heat loss from Earth’s formation. With water from hot springs, geothermal energy has been used for bathing since Paleolithic times and for space heating since ancient Roman times, but it is now better known for electricity generation. Geothermal power is cost-effective, reliable, sustainable, and environmentally friendly, but has historically been limited to areas near tectonic plate boundaries. The Earth’s geothermal resources are theoretically more than adequate to supply humanity’s energy needs, but only a very small fraction may be profitably exploited.

Drilling and exploration for deep resources is very expensive. Forecasts for the future of geothermal power depend on assumptions about technology, energy prices, subsidies, plate boundary movement and interest rates. Hot springs have been used for bathing at least since Paleolithic times. The oldest known spa is a stone pool on China’s Lisan mountain built in the Qin Dynasty in the 3rd century BC, at the same site where the Huaqing Chi palace was later built. In 1892, America’s first district heating system in Boise, Idaho was powered directly by geothermal energy, and was copied in Klamath Falls, Oregon in 1900. In the 20th century, demand for electricity led to the consideration of geothermal power as a generating source.

Prince Piero Ginori Conti tested the first geothermal power generator on 4 July 1904, at the same Larderello dry steam field where geothermal acid extraction began. It successfully lit four light bulbs. Lord Kelvin invented the heat pump in 1852, and Heinrich Zoelly had patented the idea of using it to draw heat from the ground in 1912. In 1960, Pacific Gas and Electric began operation of the first successful geothermal electric power plant in the United States at The Geysers in California. The original turbine lasted for more than 30 years and produced 11 MW net power.

The binary cycle power plant was first demonstrated in 1967 in the USSR and later introduced to the US in 1981. This technology allows the generation of electricity from much lower temperature resources than previously. 24 countries is online, which was expected to generate 67,246 GWh of electricity in 2010. In 2010, the United States led the world in geothermal electricity production with 3,086 MW of installed capacity from 77 power plants.