Geothermal energy is one of the oldest types of power used by humans. Archaeological evidence suggests that the earliest direct use of geothermal power occurred at least 10,000 years ago in North America, where indigenous peoples were drawn to hot springs for both spiritual and practical reasons. It is clear that many viewed hot springs as sacred spaces and considered them sites of healing, believing that soaking in warm spring water brought a wide range of medicinal benefits. This drew people to the springs, making them gathering sites for different people and offering opportunities for trade, diplomacy and cultural exchange. Others used hot springs for more mundane reasons, like cooking food or providing an escape from the frigid winter climate.
Similarly, the peoples of ancient Greece and Rome viewed hot springs as places of healing imbued with sacred power. The Greek physician Hippocrates (460–320 BCE) promoted the health benefits of hot bathing, while the Roman author Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE) wrote about the particular benefits of hot mineral baths for people suffering from muscle, joint, or paralytic ailments. The Romans built shrines at hot springs, many of which yield archaeological evidence that people sought to communicate with the gods. At the shrine to the goddess Minerva at Bath, for example, archaeologists have uncovered 130 lead tablets upon which people had written various pleas to the gods for assistance. Like the indigenous peoples of North America, the Romans also used geothermal energy for more practical applications, such as providing space heating for buildings.
The first effort to harness geothermal energy for industrial use came in 1818 in the Tuscan region of Italy where French engineer François Jacques de Larderel pioneered a new way to extract boric acid from hot springs. While others had developed the means to extract the acid using fire to evaporate the water, de Larderel was the first to harness the region’s substantial geothermal energy to drive the process. The town that grew up around the industrial production of boric acid, Larderello, was also home to the first successful effort to produce electricity with geothermal energy. In 1904, Italian scientist Piero Ginori Conti successfully used geothermal energy to power a small generator capable of lighting several light bulbs. This modest beginning was the foundation for much larger experiments, and in 1913, Larderello became the site of the world’s first commercial geothermal power plant. After the Second World War, the United States became a major producer of geothermal power. The largest geothermal power plant complex in the world is The Geysers, located in the Mayacamas Mountains north of San Francisco. Opened in 1960, the site now includes twenty-two power plants powered by steam from over 350 wells.
Though feasibility studies have been conducted on multiple sites, there are no geothermal power plants currently operating in Alberta (or, for that matter, anywhere in Canada). The history of geothermal energy in Alberta rests largely in direct use, most particularly in the province’s many hot springs.