Expanding Geothermal Literacy - Fostering the Scientists of Tomorrow.

By Sarah Buening (UofU) March 30, 2023

In November 2022 and February 2023, the Utah FORGE outreach team visited three elementary schools in Beaver County — Belknap Elementary, Milford Elementary and Minersville Elementary — to introduce a geothermal poster contest to fifth and sixth graders. After being taught basic geothermal concepts and participating in hands-on science activities,  the students were asked to make posters including artwork and a few short paragraphs explaining an aspect of geothermal energy. Winners and runners-up were selected from each school and awarded prizes courtesy of Enel Green Power, with winners getting recognized in their classes and in the local newspaper.

For young students like these, becoming energy literate is particularly important. The average child born today will need to emit about eight times less carbon dioxide than their grandparents to comply with Paris Climate Agreement goals. With President Biden’s commitment to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, changes to our energy portfolio are inevitable. As energy needs evolve, today’s young people will witness and become responsible for overseeing drastic changes in infrastructure. Any optimized clean energy palette should include geothermal as a viable energy source. Equipping young people with a greater understanding of alternate energy resources will better prepare them for the changes to come and, as this contest showed, really excite them!

Fueling Student Interests

Since the contest’s conclusion, teachers and students alike have already asked the Utah FORGE team if it will be repeated next year. One teacher remarked that they had, “never seen the students so engaged for something like this before.” The contest’s success reflects that young people are receptive to and interested in having this type of knowledge. Students sparked interest in geothermal for a number of reasons, with many posters citing that near their home in Beaver County, three geothermal power plants produce enough energy for approximately 66,000 homes. Some of these students have parents working at the Utah FORGE or other geothermal sites, making it a personal and proximal issue for them.

Even at their young ages, students did a remarkable job comparing and contrasting the benefits of one form of energy versus another. Many spoke about how geothermal can use any type of water to operate and that it’s clean for the atmosphere because geothermal power plants don’t cause pollution — or as Brandon at Belknap Elementary put it, geothermal doesn’t use a “motor that puts dirty air into the air.” They also referenced geothermal energy’s benefit of constant availability, since it doesn’t have to rely on variable inputs like wind or sun. Whitlee from Milford Elementary remarked that, “Geothermal energy works 24/7 even when the sun is not shining and the wind isn’t blowing.”

Students also marveled at the history and unique uses of the earth’s heat. Humans have utilized heat from the earth for at least 10,000 years, and as Delaney at Belknap Elementary reported, cultures like the “Ancient Romans, Chinese and Greeks used [hot spring] water for therapeutic bathing,” as well as for “cleaning, warmth and cooking.” They recognized that these practices continue today, in tandem with newer geothermal applications like heating greenhouses to grow flowers and produce. Finley from Milford Elementary also noted that industrial geothermal energy can be used to pasteurize milk and dehydrate food.

Student fascination extended even beyond humankind, as some researched the ways in which other animals have adapted to use geothermal heat for their species’ growth and evolution. To several students’ excitement, snow monkeys soak in hot springs to warm and relax themselves.

Geothermal energy is the heat beneath our feet, and especially to the young imagination, that’s pretty cool. It’s important that we nourish the excitement young people have for this technology because their natural curiosity can fuel the creation of future climate leaders, activists and engineers. Students like Lacey from Belknap Elementary know that, “The ground below your own backyard or local school has enough heat to control the climate in your home or other buildings in the community.” Going forward, students like her should receive no shortage of opportunities to help recognize geothermal’s full potential as part of the country’s energy portfolio.

Realizing Geothermal Energy Potential

As of 2021, about 40% of all carbon dioxide pollution came from fossil-fuel burning power plants, and the U.S. relied on fossil fuels — petroleum, natural gas and coal — for 79% of its primary energy production. Luckily, renewable energy is on the rise. In 2019, for the first time since before 1885, U.S. annual energy consumption from renewable sources surpassed coal usage. Still, most of this growth comes from solar and wind. Despite the U.S. becoming the leading producer of geothermal energy in the world, only 2% of its renewable energy production currently comes from geothermal sources. However, it has the potential to serve us well beyond that capacity.

Geothermal energy has the potential to supply 10% of today’s energy needs. The Western U.S., including Utah, holds the best potential for geothermal electricity production in the nation. As energy demands rise and the energy landscape changes, it becomes more important than ever to utilize that energy. Improved education and outreach play a paramount role in that mission. So, for young people growing up in the west, a familiarization with geothermal energy is especially crucial.

Investing in renewable energy literacy will help today’s students prepare for the future, but it will also give them the opportunity to pursue their interests. We at Utah FORGE, for one, are happy to see students like those in Beaver County ready and willing to learn about all that geothermal energy has to offer.