Why geothermal power deserves more hype

Solar energy is chock-full of benefits for homes, humanity and the earth as a whole, and will definitely play a primary role in the coming transition to renewable power. But the issue of intermittency, a significant disadvantage for solar power and a greener electric grid, can be solved immediately using geothermal power.

geothermal energy power plant

Yet most of the hype surrounding renewable energy goes to solar and wind power. To focus too heavily on these excellent but intermittent resources would be a major mistake, especially when a valuable, baseload power source is waiting in the wings. Geothermal energy deserves more hype in the race to clean up our skies, hype which I plan to give it right now.

Geothermal Potential

Within roughly six miles of the earth’s crust there is 50,000 times more geothermal energy than exists in all the oil and gas reserves in the world. So, the geothermal conundrum is not a matter of available resources – it’s a matter of getting to it. Geothermal energy works best in areas with high seismic activity, which aids in breaking up the super-heated layer of rock and allows heated water and steam to travel toward the surface. Many of these areas are already using a good amount of that energy. California houses some 40 geothermal plants, accounting for 5 percent of the state’s energy needs. Iceland, which has some of the best geothermal potential in the world, already gets more than 90 percent of its energy from geothermal power.

Yet geothermal power is available everywhere. So called “milder” resources are prevalent throughout the United States, and new technologies like Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) are drilling deeper than ever before. Like solar and wind power, geothermal power stands on the brink of greatness, yet seems to get less attention.

This is especially worrisome because many energy companies and politicians are looking to “clean coal” and nuclear energy to solve the 24/7 power problems of mainstream renewables. They see these questionable alternatives as our only chance to clean our energy grid in the short term, rather than waiting for renewable technologies to advance.geothermal energy

Geothermal Investment

That’s not to say there hasn’t been a recent trend towards geothermal, despite the hype that solar and wind projects receive. A joint report by MIT and the Department of Energy estimate that more than 100 gigawatts of geothermal power could be produced by 2050. In response, the feds and private investors, including $10 million from Google, have begun investing more heavily. Some $800 million was invested in geothermal energy projects in 2009. The Department of the Interior opened up 190 million acres of public land to geothermal projects, a move that alone could triple geothermal output by 2015 at least.

Geothermal Growth

According to the Geothermal Energy Association, more than 3,152 megawatts of geothermal power are online now, nearly 83 percent of which comes out of California. Other Western states, including Nevada, Oregon, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Hawaii, Wyoming and Alaska, are using but a pittance of their geothermal potential. Hawaii, for example, with all its seismic and volcanic activity, houses just one completed geothermal power plant.

The sharp increase in funding, as well as the more than 6 GW of new geothermal projects currently under development, should not be downplayed. But just about everyone involved in the geothermal industry agrees that more can be done. Geothermal faces many of the same problems as other renewables as it struggles to compete with fossil fuels, transmission issues, cost of technology, etc., but offers some unique benefits, led by round-the-clock baseload power generation. Geothermal also requires relatively small surface area compared to its competitors, as plants must sprawl only downward rather than across the landscape to find more energy.

Giving geothermal energy more hype is not about competing with solar or wind power. It’s about using our full complement of renewable resources to combat climate change. Indeed, many of the same policy steps that would almost certainly skyrocket wind and solar (i.e. feed-in tariffs, a national renewable electricity standard and domestic manufacturing) would equally benefit geothermal. And while I know much is already being done, a little more recognition and public awareness can certainly help.

“While we reach high for outer space and even space solar power, let’s not forget the energy boiling beneath our feet.”

In recent years, solar power has become a household term; most of us have at least a fair idea of how it works and its ultimate potential for providing clean energy and economy. Right alongside it and just emerging from the shadows is geothermal power – the sidekick that actually does more work and produces more energy at present. While we reach high for outer space and even space solar power, let’s not forget the energy boiling beneath our feet.

February 4th in Geothermal by Dan.
Photo Credit:arnitr & lydurs

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