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Geological controls on geothermal resources for power generation


Threats posed by the climate crisis have created an urgent need for sustainable green energy. Geothermal resources have the potential to provide up to 150 GWe of sustainable energy by 2050. However, the key challenge in successfully locating and drilling geothermal wells is to understand how the heterogeneous structure of the subsurface controls the existence of exploitable fluid reservoirs. In this Review, we discuss how key geological factors contribute to the profitable utilization of intermediate-temperature to high-temperature geothermal resources for power generation. The main driver of geothermal activity is elevated crustal heat flow, which is focused in regions of active magmatism and/or crustal thinning. Permeable structures such as faults exercise a primary control on local fluid flow patterns, with most upflow zones residing in complex fault interaction zones. Major risks in geothermal resource assessment and operation include locating sufficient permeability for fluid extraction, in addition to declining reservoir pressure and the potential of induced seismicity. Advanced computational methods permit effective integration of multiple datasets and, thus, can reduce potential risks. Future innovations involve engineered geothermal systems as well as supercritical and offshore geothermal resources, which could greatly expand the global application of geothermal energy but require detailed knowledge of the respective geological conditions.

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Fig. 1: Global distribution of geothermal resources.
Fig. 2: Typical geological settings of intermediate-temperature to high-temperature geothermal systems.
Fig. 3: Porosity–permeability relationships in geothermal reservoir formations.
Fig. 4: Favourable structural settings for geothermal exploitation.
Fig. 5: Evolution of discharge enthalpy in geothermal wells.
Fig. 6: Failure criterion for a critically stressed fault.


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We are especially grateful to the entire ThinkGeoEnergy team for access to the updated global geothermal power plant database, F. Lucazeau for providing a modified dataset on continental heat flow and E. Trumpy for discussing the global geothermal suitability distribution map.

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E.J. developed the concept and structure of the manuscript. All authors contributed to the scientific input, writing and editing of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Egbert Jolie.

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Intermediate-temperature geothermal systems

Systems with temperatures ranging from 125 to 225 °C. Here, it is denoted that geothermal resources are ones where fluids are present, allowing for power generation using binary power plant technology.

High-temperature geothermal systems

Systems with temperatures >225 °C. Here, it is denoted that geothermal resources are ones where fluids are present, allowing for power generation using flash and/or binary power plant technology.

Conventional geothermal resources

Naturally occurring convective hydrothermal systems heated by magma and/or a high geothermal gradient, with sufficient fluid and permeability to be exploited by flash or binary power plants

Flash power plants

Common technology for power generation from a two-phase, high-temperature geothermal reservoir by a steam turbine, with the option of multiple flash stages (single, double or triple).


Thermodynamic measure of the maximum available work output from a system. Specific exergy (or availability) is defined as \(e=h-{h}_{0}-T\,(s-{s}_{0})\), where h is specific enthalpy, T is absolute temperature, s is specific entropy and the subscript 0 refers to the reference or dead state (often taken to be 1 atm, 10 °C).


Defined as fluid with a density that is lower than the critical density of the fluid composition in question; for geothermal systems, this term is interchangeable with steam.

Binary power plants

Common technology for power generation from a liquid-dominated, intermediate-temperature to high-temperature geothermal reservoir using heat exchangers to evaporate a working fluid with lower boiling point compared with water.

Unconventional geothermal resources

Geothermal systems (for example, petrothermal or supercritical resources) with potential for direct use or power generation, but demand specific enhancement and/or engineering of reservoir properties to become economically exploitable.

Petrothermal systems

Intermediate-temperature to high-temperature geological formations with low permeability (<10−16 m2) and no fluid or insufficient fluid quantity.

Enhanced geothermal system

(EGS). Geothermal resource that is enhanced and/or artificially created (engineered) through hydraulic, chemical or thermal stimulation.

Supercritical geothermal resources

Potentially exploitable part of a high temperature geothermal system where permeability is >10−16 m2, and the temperature and specific enthalpy of water are greater than their critical values for pure water (374 °C, 2 MJ kg−1).

Play fairway analysis

(PFA). Integrative approach to evaluate geothermal favourability, identify potential locations of blind geothermal systems and target the most promising sites for drilling geothermal wells.

Upflow zones

Areas where the hottest geothermal fluids flow upwards towards the surface along structural discontinuities and/or permeable formations.

Outflow zones

Areas where hot geothermal fluids flow laterally, commonly influenced by topography and faulting, normally at shallow depths (<1 km).

Primary permeability

Permeability associated with pore spaces that are naturally present in a rock during deposition and are preserved after burial.

Secondary permeability

Permeability that is generated after the formation was deposited or intruded via processes such as rock deformation (to create fractures) or rock dissolution.


Defined as a fluid with a density that is greater than the critical density of the fluid composition in question. For geothermal systems, this term is commonly interchangeable with brine and hot water.

Liquid-dominated geothermal resource

Able to produce a mixture of liquid and vapour (steam), and generally the most common resource type.

Vapour-dominated geothermal resource

Able to produce only vapour (steam), generally a less common resource than liquid-dominated systems.

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Jolie, E., Scott, S., Faulds, J. et al. Geological controls on geothermal resources for power generation. Nat Rev Earth Environ 2, 324–339 (2021).

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