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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 in Larderello, Italy. It successfully lit four light bulbs. Later, in 1911, the world’s first commercial geothermal power plant was built there. Experimental generators were built in Beppu, Japan and the Geysers, California, in the 1920s, but Italy was the world’s only industrial producer of geothermal electricity until 1958.
In 1958, New Zealand became the second major industrial producer of geothermal electricity when its Wairakei station was commissioned. Wairakei was the first plant to use flash steam technology.
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 Russia and later introduced to the USA in 1981, following the 1970s energy crisisand significant changes in regulatory policies. This technology allows the use of much lower temperature resources than were previously recoverable. In 2006, a binary cycle plant in Chena Hot Springs, Alaska, came on-line, producing electricity from a record low fluid temperature of 57°C (135°F).
Geothermal electric plants have until recently been built exclusively where high temperature geothermal resources are available near the surface. The development of binary cycle power plantsand improvements in drilling and extraction technology may enable enhanced geothermal systems over a much greater geographical range. Demonstration projects are operational in Landau-Pfalz, Germany, and Soultz-sous-Forêts, France, while an earlier effort in Basel, Switzerland was shut down after it triggered earthquakes. Other demonstration projects are under construction in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.
The thermal efficiency of geothermal electric plants is low, around 10-23%, because geothermal fluids are at a low temperature compared with steam from boilers. By the laws of thermodynamics this low temperature limits the efficiency of heat engines in extracting useful energy during the generation of electricity. Exhaust heat is wasted, unless it can be used directly and locally, for example in greenhouses, timber mills, and district heating. The efficiency of the system does not affect operational costs as it would for a coal or other fossil fuel plant, but it does factor into the viability of the plant.
In order to produce more energy than the pumps consume, electricity generation requires high temperature geothermal fields and specialized heat cycles. Because geothermal power does not rely on variable sources of energy, unlike, for example, wind or solar, its capacity factor can be quite large – up to 96% has been demonstrated. However the global average capacity factor was 74.5% in 2008, according to the IPCC.