The Barren Island volcano erupting in March 1995. Photo: NASA
- The Barren Island volcano was once thought to be extinct, but then it erupted in 1991 and became South Asia’s only active volcano.
- The island’s geothermal field generates a large amount of steam through fumaroles and is dotted with hot springs.
- Both hot springs and steam have desirable geothermal properties that could be used to generate electricity, for space-heating and for household uses.
The Barren Island volcano was once thought to be extinct, but then it erupted in 1991 and became South Asia’s only active volcano.
At present, Barren Island is a popular tourist spot. The surrounding warm waters provide for a rich scuba-diving experience, allowing divers to visit old lava formations and spectacular coral reefs. But as an important geothermal province of India, the island has the potential to be a lot more.
Flowing lava from volcanic eruptions on the island have created a delta-like area on its western shore. A 2009 study found that the sea water surrounding this structure had a temperature of 60-70º C. This figure is a reflection of the island’s tremendous geothermal potential, and that we could use it to power Indian households and industry.
The island’s geothermal field generates a large amount of steam through fumaroles – openings on the surface that emit volcanic gases; as such, the island is dotted with hot springs. Both these entities, hot springs and steam, have desirable geothermal properties that could be used to generate electricity, for space-heating and for household uses, among other things.
Fumarolic discharges have been known to have temperatures of 100º to 500º C, and could serve as a source of clean energy. In Iceland, for example, drilling activities in the Reykjanes Peninsula volcano have released hot vapours, which have been used to drive electric turbines. Indeed, almost 90% of homes in Iceland are currently heated with geothermal energy.
Heat from the Barren Island volcano, carried by fluids rising to the surface above, could be put to similar use in India.
Electricity from volcanoes
The Government of India recently set a target to make India an ‘energy independent’ nation by 2047. Volcano-powered electricity could help on this front in five ways.
- Clean, sustainable electricity – Many areas in the Andaman and Nicobar Island chain are underdeveloped. Geothermal energy from the Barren Island volcano could help provide clean electricity to these areas for a long time, virtually forever.
- Cost-effective – Establishing geothermal power plants is a costly affair, but the costs of operating and maintaining them are much lower. In the long run, their effective costs are significantly lower than for other, more ‘conventional’ power-generating plants. Geothermal energy is also a natural source of heat, so extra fuel costs can also be eliminated.
- Weather-independent – The energy output of geothermal sources doesn’t fluctuate as much as that of other renewable sources like wind and solar. So in addition to being sustainable and cost-effective, heat from the Barren Island volcano will also be reliable.
- Local employment – Geothermal power plants require a large workforce, and the jobs thus provided will be both economically and environmentally beneficial.
- Lucrative investment – Private sector involvement in the Barren Island project could provide for a public-private partnership model like Tata Power’s Mundra power plant in Gujarat or the Maithon power station in Jharkhand, and take advantage of investors’ interest in renewable energy.
Solar power currently dominates India’s renewable energy domain, and geothermal energy remains largely unexplored – including Barren Island itself. So researchers and surveyors must explore the island, and other similar areas, posthaste, with a view to harnessing its geothermal potential.
Recently, the government-run Oil and Natural Gas Corporation announced plans to implement the first ‘Geothermal Field Development Project’ in Ladakh. This project’s successful implementation could pave the way for more geothermal power projects at other sites in future, including Barren Island.
Prarthana Sen is a research intern at the Observer Research Foundation, studying how energy poverty affects women in urban slums.