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Geothermal


  • [ GWh of Electricity Added: ]

    12.7K
  • [ Jobs Impact: ]

    • Low
    • Medium
    • High
  • [ Budget Impact: ]

    • Low
    • Medium
    • High
  • [ Conventional Pollutants Reduced: ]

    SO2
    1667 tons
    NOx
    1376 tons
    Hg
    .022 tons
    PM
    256 tons
  • [ Megatons of GHG Reduced: ]

    12

Overview

Geothermal energy has been in use in the U.S. since our nation’s founding, and today every state uses it to some degree already.1 But only Hawaii, Alaska, and a handful of states in the Western U.S., use that energy to generate electricity.2 This is despite geothermal generation’s ability to produce electricity at a steady rate every hour of the day.3 Most of the geothermal heat sources are over tectonic activity and centralized in the underserved and power-thirsty West.4 There are also sizeable amounts of potential energy simmering under the surface of states like West Virginia, Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas.5 These energy assets have not yet been maximized because the U.S. has provided inadequate resources or erected sizeable barriers to the development and roll-out of geothermal technology. In 2010, only 3.1 gigawatts of geothermal generation, roughly the same capacity as only 6 average-sized coal plants,6 had been installed in the U.S.7 But a few smart policy changes could open as much as 100 GW of new, clean energy to American consumers.8

Analysis

Obstacles to optimizing geothermal power include the challenges of mining safely to depths of 10 kilometers, transmission and exploration barriers, and access to capital. But these impediments are worth trying to overcome. A recent study by MIT suggests that nearly 10% of our energy needs could be met by geothermal.9 That is roughly equivalent to all of our existing renewable resources today, including hydropower. Furthermore, most jobs created by geothermal projects would be in drilling, which do not require a college degree and can help balance the boom-bust cycle of employment in the oil and gas industries.10

Assuming some smaller nuanced policies are adopted to increase access to capital and exploration, the U.S. could see an increase of 1.6 GW of capacity, or a net increase of 50% in total geothermal capabilities. Working under this assumption, these new geothermal facilities could generate enough electricity to power at least 1.1 million homes,11 more than the entire state of Nebraska.12 Assuming these new geothermal turbines replaced coal, 1.6 GW of geothermal would eliminate as much as 12 megatons of CO2 equivalent emissions.13 Like other clean energy technologies, geothermal produces no conventional pollutants (like nitrogen and sulfur oxides, mercury, or particulate matter). Hence, building this additional geothermal capacity could remove as much conventional air pollutants every year as produced by about 4 average-size coal plants.14 The new geothermal projects spurred by these policies could also add over 2,500 jobs from cradle to grave.15

Implementation

Easing access to public lands and financing would provide a boost to the development of geothermal projects.

Facilitate Exploration of Geothermal on Federal Lands

Congress should pass legislation to both enable the easy identification of geothermal activity on public lands and facilitate leasing of federal lands. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, many of the public lands in the Western U.S. sit atop vast thermal energy resources that could be harnessed to provide power to growing cities and suburbs.16 However, discovering ideal locations on these lands has been hampered by unduly burdensome regulations. Language introduced by House Republicans in 2011 would provide a less onerous regulatory process for exploring hot spots.17 Furthermore, a bipartisan bill in the Senate has been reintroduced to allow noncompetitive leasing of limited federal lands.18 Together, these small reforms could provide developers with a more manageable and less costly regulatory hurdles and lead to an increase in geothermal projects, without unduly threatening the environment on these national lands.

Make Geothermal Eligible for Master Limited Partnerships

Inclusion in Master Limited Partnerships could open up cheaper and earlier financing options for geothermal energy. Master Limited Partnerships are covered in the Clean Energy Finance Component.

EndNotes
  1. Heat pumps in individual homes, direct use geothermal projects, geothermal power projects, and a host of other uses all can qualify as a bona fide use of geothermal energy.
  2. Geothermal Energy Association, “Geothermal Power Plants – USA” Accessed March 4, 2013. Available at: http://geo-energy.org/plants.aspx.
  3. United States, Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) “Geothermal FAQs,” 2013. Accessed March 4, 2013. Available at: http://www1.eere.energy.gov/geothermal/faqs.html.
  4. United States, Department of Energy, National Renewable Energy Laboratory “Policymakers’ Guidebook for Geothermal Electricity Generation,” Report, p. 3. Accessed March 4, 2013. Available at: http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy11osti/49476.pdf.
  5. Ibid.
  6. For the purpose of analysis in the PowerBook, the average coal plant size is assumed to be 550 MW when burning subcritical bituminous pulverized coal. See e.g., United States, Department of Energy, National Energy Technology Laboratory, “Subcritical Pulverized Bituminous Coal Plant,” Report. Accessed March 4, 2013. Available at: http://www.netl.doe.gov/KMD/cds/disk50/PC%20Plant%20Case_Subcritical_051507.pdf..
  7. United States, Department of Energy, National Renewable Energy Laboratory “Policymakers’ Guidebook for Geothermal Electricity Generation,” Report, p. 3. Accessed March 4, 2013. Available at: http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy11osti/49476.pdf “.
  8. The Future of Geothermal Energy: Impact of Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) on the United States in the 21st Century” Report, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), 2006, pp.1-3. Accessed March 4, 2013. Available at: http://www1.eere.energy.gov/geothermal/pdfs/future_geo_energy.pdf.
  9. Ibid. pp.1-9.
  10. The oil and gas industry tends to be cyclical in hiring and when prices are low and production drops, so too does employment. Jim Noe, Senior VP Hercules Offshore, Interview by Jeff Brady, All Things Considered, National Public Radio, May 9, 2012. Accessed March 4, 2013. Available at: http://www.npr.org/2012/05/09/152366886/booming-oil-industry-struggles-to-fill-jobs.
  11. Mathematical analysis based on data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) on average home energy use and the likely energy generated by 1.5 GW of geothermal at its capacity factor of 91% from EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2012. See United States, Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, “Frequently Asked Questions: How Much Electricity Does an American Home Use?” Accessed March 4, 2013. Available at: http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=97&t=3; See also United States, Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, “Levelized Cost of New Generation Resources in the Annual Energy Outlook 2012,” July 12, 2012. Accessed March 4, 2013. Available at: http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/electricity_generation.cfm.
  12. Nebraska had 801,185 housing units in 2011. See United States, Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, “State & County QuickFacts: Nebraska,” Accessed March 4, 2013. Available at: http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/31000.html.
  13. Calculations based on data from the Energy Information Administration on capacity factor of energy, and peer reviewed analysis of GHG output by energy source. See United States, Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, “Levelized Cost of New Generation Resources in the Annual Energy Outlook 2012,” July 12, 2012, Table 1. Accessed March 4, 2013. Available at: http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/electricity_generation.cfm; See also, Benjamin Sovacool, “Valuing Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Nuclear Power: A Critical Survey,” Article, Energy Policy, June 2, 2008, p. 2950. Print.
  14. Analysis based on conventional pollutants of a 550 MW subcritical bituminous pulverized coal plant, assumed to be average sized for the PowerBook. See United States, Department of Energy, National Energy Technology Laboratory, “Subcritical Pulverized Bituminous Coal Plant,” Report. Accessed March 4, 2013. Available at: http://www.netl.doe.gov/KMD/cds/disk50/PC%20Plant%20Case_Subcritical_051507.pdf.
  15. Based on the recent employment numbers cited for the CalEnergy project in Imperial Valley, CA. See Geothermal Energy Association, “Why Support Geothermal Energy,” Report, February, 2012, p. 3. Accessed March 4, 2013. Available at: http://geo-energy.org/pdf/FINALforWEB_WhySupportGeothermal.pdf.
  16. United States, Department of Energy, National Renewable Energy Laboratory “Policymakers’ Guidebook for Geothermal Electricity Generation,” Report, p. 3. Accessed March 4, 2013. Available at: http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy11osti/49476.pdf.
  17. United States, Congress, House, “H.R. 2171 – Exploring for Geothermal Energy on Federal Lands Act,” 112th Congress, 1st Session, introduced June 14, 2011. Accessed March 4, 2013. Available at: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-112hr2171rh/pdf/BILLS-112hr2171rh.pdf.
  18. United States, Congress, Senate, “S. 363 –Geothermal Production Expansion Act,” 113th Congress, 1st Session, introduced February 14, 2013. Accessed March 4, 2013. Available at: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-113s363is/pdf/BILLS-113s363is.pdf.