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Industries & Professions /
Geothermal Energy Industry Workers
Geothermal heat comes from the heat within the earth. Water heated from geothermal energy is tapped from its underground reservoirs and used to heat buildings, grow crops, or melt snow. This direct use of geothermal energy can also be used to generate electricity.
Most water and steam reservoirs are located in the western United States. However, dry rock drilling, a process that drills deeper into the earth’s magma, is an innovation that will eventually allow geothermal projects to be undertaken almost anywhere.
According to the Geothermal Energy Association (GEA), the development of geothermal energy resources involves the following steps: Start-Up, Exploration, Drilling, Plant Design and Construction, and Operation and Maintenance. Workers can be employed in more than one subsector. Many of these workers are also employed outside the renewable energy industry.
The GEA reports that a "large portion of the work done in the start-up phase of geothermal development stems from working with state and federal permitting offices." More than 248 million acres of public lands in the western United States have been identified as having geothermal potential. This land is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or the Forest Service (FS). Geothermal energy developers must apply for geothermal leases in order to develop and use the land. Teams of BLM or FS staff process these permits. Team members include geologists, hydrologists, archaeologists, wildlife biologists, wildlife specialists, adjudicators, and National Environmental Policy Act coordinators. The developer will also hire science and technical consultants to provide him or her with expert knowledge about the land being sought for geothermal development. Both parties also employ lawyers and paralegals to facilitate the legal aspects of the leasing process.
Geothermal development also takes place on state and private lands. In these instances, the same process occurs, only with state agencies and private industry workers.
Once the developer obtains a lease to use the land, he or she must conduct geothermal exploration activities to increase the chances of drilling successful production wells. According to the GEA, "Exploration activities may include airborne, geological, geochemical, and geophysical surveys … and the drilling of temperature gradient wells, core drilling, or other drilling operations." Some of the workers involved in this stage include geologists, geophysicists, geochemists, geographic information system specialists, exploration drillers, sample analysts, surveyors, and consultants.
Once it is determined that the geothermal resource is commercially viable, production wells are drilled. Since this is a complex process, the developer usually hires a company that specializes in drilling geothermal wells. Workers involved in the drilling process include drilling engineers, rig hands, rig site managers, geologists, mud loggers, drilling fluids workers, cementing workers, safety managers, and welders.
Construction of a typical 50-megawatt geothermal plant typically involves approximately 160 workers and nearly three years of labor, according to Calpine Corporation, a leading geothermal power producer. The developer typically hires a contractor to design and construct the geothermal power plant. There are also many complex mechanical and electrical systems, as well as the power unit system, that must be individually manufactured before being added to the plant infrastructure. Workers involved in these processes include architects, cost estimators, designers, engineers (with backgrounds in chemical, civil, electrical, manufacturing, mechanical, performance/systems, project, and quality engineering), engineering technicians, assembly mechanics, machinists, maintenance technicians, construction managers, and a wide variety of construction trades workers, such as carpenters, welders, plumbers, roofers, and electricians.
Once a geothermal power plant is up-and-running, it takes a variety of workers to operate and maintain it. These workers include plant managers, production managers, engineers, site operators, and maintenance technicians.
During all the aforementioned stages, support workers are also needed to perform clerical duties; supervise workers; manage computer databases; respond to press inquiries; maintain records; educate the public; and do many other tasks. Secretaries, receptionists, customer service representatives, media relations specialists, personnel and human resources specialists, accountants, information technology workers, and educators are just some of the types of support workers who are employed in this industry.