Energy Excursions

Geothermal’s Past

Geothermal energy has been around since Earth formed billions of years ago. So, it is no surprise that humans have used geothermal resources for the past thousands of years. The archaeological record displays the integral role that geothermal energy played in ancient civilizations across the globe.1Azhar, M., Zaidi, A. A., Naseer, M. N., Noorollahi, Y., & Uzair, M. (2022). 1 – Historical overview of geothermal energy. In Utilization of Thermal Potential of Abandoned Wells (pp. 3–10). Elsevier Inc. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-323-90616-6.00001-4 Geothermal energy acted as a heat source for cooking, bathing, and warming homes. Some prehistoric societies used natural hot springs and other geothermal land features for spiritual practices.

Larderello, Italy: Birthplace of Geothermal Power

The first recorded documentation of an ancient civilization’s awareness of geothermal resources dates back 9–8 thousand years ago (ka) in a painting of an ancient Neolithic settlement in the Larderello area of Italy.2Azhar, M., Zaidi, A. A., Naseer, M. N., Noorollahi, Y., & Uzair, M. (2022). 1 – Historical overview of geothermal energy. In Utilization of Thermal Potential of Abandoned Wells (pp. 3–10). Elsevier Inc. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-323-90616-6.00001-4 The painting displays hot springs and a volcanic eruption, demonstrating the society’s knowledge of geomorphological features. Thousands of years later, in 1904, the Larderello field became the world’s first place to generate electricity from geothermal.3DiPippo., R. (2012). Geothermal power plants. In Comprehensive Renewable Energy (pp. 209–239). Elsevier Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-087872-0.00708-3 By 1913, Larderello had begun constructing the first commercial geothermal power plant and, by 1914, was providing electricity to nearby towns. 

The modern geothermal plant at Larderello in Italy, the first example of humans harnessing geothermal energy for the production of electricity, dating back to 1914.
The modern geothermal plant at Larderello in Italy, the first example of humans harnessing geothermal energy for the production of electricity, dating back to 1914

Ancient Geothermal Practices

Modern-day Italy has an extensive history of ancient geothermal practices.4Azhar, M., Zaidi, A. A., Naseer, M. N., Noorollahi, Y., & Uzair, M. (2022). 1 – Historical overview of geothermal energy. In Utilization of Thermal Potential of Abandoned Wells (pp. 3–10). Elsevier Inc. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-323-90616-6.00001-4 Archaeologists can determine the significance of geothermal energy use through the spatial study of past settlements. There is a construction trend around geothermal spots, signifying the role of geothermal energy in these ancient cultures. Pantelleria Island, a volcanic satellite island of Sicily in southern Italy, also demonstrates this long-term geothermal energy/human symbiotic relationship. The ancient people built their towns around the island’s geothermal features. 

The area of Central Italy between the rivers Arno (flowing through Florence) and Tiber (flowing through Rome) was called Etruria in ancient times. The region’s inhabitants, the Etruscans developed geothermal technology from about 3,500-3,000 years ago.5Azhar, M., Zaidi, A. A., Naseer, M. N., Noorollahi, Y., & Uzair, M. (2022). 1 – Historical overview of geothermal energy. In Utilization of Thermal Potential of Abandoned Wells (pp. 3–10). Elsevier Inc. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-323-90616-6.00001-4 Archaeologists found evidence of thermal hydroprocessing. The ancient people of Etruria positioned their manufacturing settlements in close proximity to the area’s geothermal source. The ancient, urban society specialized in pottery making, fabric treatment, glass making, proportioning, grinding, and many other processes. Geothermal allowed the Etruscans to advance, trade, and develop an industry. These historical geothermal roots set the stage for that first geothermal power plant in Larderello, located in the ancient region of Etruria.

Hot Springs in Texas

A growing body of literature demonstrates geothermal energy’s influence on ancient and prehistoric human life in the Mediterranean. Although more research is needed to explore Texas’ precontact geothermal beginnings, there are historical records of the Boquillas Hot Springs located in Big Bend National Park along the Rio Grande River.6National Park Service (NPS) (n.d.). Langford Hot Springs. NPS. https://www.nps.gov/places/langford-hot-springs.htm 

Remnants of rock art and bedrock features indicate that indigenous people once lived by these springs.7Hilton, E. (2019). Hot Springs, TX. Texas State Historical Association. https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/hot-springs-tx In 1909, J. O. Langford purchased the land and created a bathhouse. In his memoir, Big Bend: A Homesteader’s Story, Langford shares that he used Native American hot springs practices to nurse himself back to health. Langford’s story once again demonstrates the wide range of geothermal resources and humans’ long-term symbiotic relationship with the energy source. 

The Boquillas Hot Springs, located on the edge of the Rio Grande
The historical Hot Springs Resort, built in 1914

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