Geothermal energy from India’s hot water springs

A couple of years ago, as we were driving from Tsokar to Sumdo in Ladakh, our driver and friend Lobsang said he would like to take us to a place enroute called Puga. Lobsang knew I had a fascination to stop by schools whenever we saw one. So he told me that the area had a government residential school. He also mentioned that the area has these unique looking grass beds and that the earth spewed out hot water there! Now that was something we had to see!!!

Image: The government school located in Puga
Image: The name of school strikes you funny because the words nomadic (wandering) and residential (staying at one place) are sort of opposite to each other! The residential school is actually meant for children of the semi-nomadic tribe called the Chang-Pa, who spend much of their time in the valleys tending to their famous pashmina goats.

Located at an altitude of close to 3900 metres above sea level, these hot water springs are just some distance away across the road, opposite to the school.

Image: Curvy looking grass beds that sport a velvet green cover are spread over this area. Puddles of water are sometimes interspersed in the dents between the beds.

About 200 metres away, you see something like a fountain which appears to be only partially visible because of the ‘smoke’ that surrounded it. That smoke was actually steam! As you walked closer to the spring, the air was filled with the unmistakable odour of Sulphur! Check out the video below. (Click on the image below if the video does not start playing on its own).

Video: Boiling hot water was coming out of that hole. The only reason we could stand so close to the outlet was because the ambient temperature was really low and it was nice being close to the hot fountain! It was like a sauna:)
Image: Now a days, Puga hot water springs have become quite a tourist favourite. Dozens stops by to witness this amazing natural phenomena.

Now here is the interesting bit. We all have always read about one of the renewable forms of energy being Geothermal energy, right?

Geothermal energy means energy that is derived from the earth and can be used for power generation. One of the pioneers and leading countries who work in this space is Iceland, and for obvious reasons. Iceland has numerous volcanoes and hot water springs. Naturally it made sense for them to take advantage of this fact and currently around 30% of Iceland’s total energy production comes from geothermal sources.

Image: A glimpse of the geothermal activity in Iceland. This is from Landmannalugar which is among Iceland’s most famous hikes located close to the Fjallabak Nature Reserve. Known for the numerous hot springs it houses, this hiking route takes you between two glaciers, Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull.

Here is a crazy video giving you a close up of the geothermal activity!! Click on the image below if the video does not start playing on its own.

Video: A closer look at the Geothermal activity. This video still gives me the goosebumps. This was in 2013, when we did the Landmannalaugar trek in Iceland. The amount of energy the earth harbours inside it is almost unimaginable.

So India has been trying to study the hot water springs in the country to gauge their potential in energy production. These areas included Puga Valley in Ladakh, Cambay Basin, Godavari and Mahanadi Basin among many others. Puga apparently faired among the more promising locations. Towards that end, ONGC Energy Centre Trust (OECT) (which is a trust set up by ONGC, one of India’s largest crude oil and natural gas Company) partnered with an Icelandic organisation to explore possible energy production in Puga Valley located in Ladakh.

While this may seem like an interesting venture, environmental groups recently reported of an “accident” that took place in Puga. During one of their drilling explorations, an uncontrolled release of geothermal fluid (called a blow-out) took place and this released a mixture of cemented rock, clay, steam, and hot water into the otherwise pristine Puga stream. This caused local environmental groups and national NGOs to raise an alarm, for it is not unheard of deep geothermal explorations to cause pollution in the immediate environment, and this incident was something that was apparently avoidable.

As I read these reports, flashes of the pristine Puga habitat came back to me. Known to be a fragile ecosystem, it is imperative that such projects like these are taken forward with extreme caution. Here is hoping that India can manage to harness this geothermal energy in the least (environmentally) destructive way possible. Hoping for the best!

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My name is Adithi Muralidhar. I am a nature enthusiast based in Mumbai, India.

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