U.S. geothermal energy sector could expand rapidly by 2050

Jordan Smith
By Jordan Smith
For business

Geothermal energy could soon surpass solar and wind power in the U.S.

Geothermal energy could be about to challenge solar and wind power as one of the fastest-growing renewable sources in the U.S., according to the projections made by the Department of Energy in a recent report: GeoVision: Harnessing the Heat Beneath our Feet.

According to the most optimistic outlook for geothermal production, the industry could grow to 60 gigawatts of installed capacity by 2050. This would be equivalent to more than 8 percent of U.S. energy output, up from the current level of 0.4 percent. Even with a less ambitious goal, the sector could still expand to produce 13 gigawatts of energy merely by streamlining regulations and taking steps to improve the approval process for new projects.

“There is enormous untapped potential for geothermal energy in the United States,” Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. “Making geothermal more affordable can increase our energy options for a more diverse electricity generation mix and for innovative heating and cooling solutions for all Americans.”

Current state of geothermal energy production

Although the U.S. leads the way in terms of geothermal capacity around the world, the study notes that much more can be done to maximize the potential of the country’s geothermal resources. According to the latest figures, only California and Nevada produce noteworthy percentages of their overall electricity generation from geothermal sources:

  • California’s geothermal industry is the largest in the country, accounting for around 6 percent of the state’s energy output.
  • Nevada generates about 9 percent of its energy from geothermal plants.

Internationally, the U.S. could soon lose its position as the leader for geothermal energy generation. International Energy Agency, Indonesia could install 2 gigawatts of geothermal by 2023, while Kenya, the Philippines, and Turkey will account for another 30 percent of global growth.

However, the US market has the potential to keep pace with these numbers, the study argues. It stresses that geothermal energy, which is obtained from water that is naturally heated deep within the Earth’s crust, could be accessible in every state across the country. This goes for natural sources of hot water near the surface that can be exploited for district heating and cooling projects, as well as heat sources located deeper underground.

Accessing this latter option on a large scale would require the use of drilling technologies to fracture wells in the Earth’s crust, similar in principle to the controversial techniques used for fracking natural gas.

To grow the sector at the highest levels, utilities, government agencies, and other players would have to cooperate to combine regulatory improvements with the use of new technologies. As the report’s authors explain in the foreword, other energy sectors have overcome similar challenges. “The status of geothermal energy mirrors the oil and gas industry at a time when unconventional oil and gas reserves were known, but the technology did not exist to produce them economically,” Dr. Susan Hamm. “Through research and collaboration, the oil and gas industry was able to tackle those barriers and attain access to previously untapped resources.”

Technological barriers

The cost of establishing new geothermal power plants is one major technological challenge. Present techniques used for geothermal exploration are not always accurate, meaning that the expected levels of energy production from a particular site at the development stage don’t always materialize. Investors are therefore often unwilling to risk substantial financial resources in a new geothermal project for fear that it may not turn out to be profitable.

The report argues enhanced geothermal systems can tackle this problem. The systems not only would drive a rapid expansion of geothermal energy in electric power generation, but they could also help grow the use of geothermal energy for heating and cooling purposes. In a nationwide map, the researchers identify some 17,500 potential sites for district heating and other direct use applications.

If the technological and regulatory barriers to geothermal development are mastered, the benefits could be substantial. As a permanently-available energy source, geothermal could help balance out the unpredictability of other renewables, like solar and wind power. Its availability across the United States would also contribute to the country’s energy security.

Summing up its potential overall impact, the study notes in the introduction, “The heat beneath our feet is an always-on source of secure, reliable, and flexible domestic energy that can be utilized across industrial, commercial, and residential sectors. The use of geothermal energy also offers important benefits to the nation, including grid stability, greater diversity in the portfolio of affordable energy options, efficient heating and cooling, and reduced air pollution.”

Jordan Smith is a freelance journalist and translator covering issues related to energy, the environment, and politics. His work has appeared on the independent news site Opposing Views, and at the Canadian Labour Institute.