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What’s Holding Geothermal Energy Back?

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Geothermal has long been considered…

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John Daly

John Daly

Dr. John C.K. Daly is the chief analyst for Oilprice.com, Dr. Daly received his Ph.D. in 1986 from the School of Slavonic and East European…

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U.S. Game Changing Renewable - Geothermal Power

The biggest weakness of renewable power advocates is the fact that the sun doesn’t always shine, nor the wind blow.

Geothermal power, which does not suffer from down time, is slowly gaining ground in the United States.

According to the U.S. government’s Energy Information Administration, “Geothermal is one of the main renewable energy sources used to generate U.S. electricity, even though its growth has not been as strong as wind and solar over the last three years during a big push to increase generation from renewables. Geothermal energy's greatest growth potential is in the western states.”

According to the EIA, in the period January- August 2011, U.S. geothermal net electricity generation totaled 10,898 million kilowatt hours (kWh), up 10 percent from the same period in 2008. While compared to other electrical sources, geothermal produced just 0.4 percent of electricity from all sectors, the sector is set to increase its share. Most U.S. geothermal power plants are located in the country’s western states, with California producing the most electricity from geothermal, about 5 percent of the state's total power generation.

Related article: Will Japan Embrace Geothermal Power to Move Away from Nuclear?

A number of factors impact on the growth of U.S. geothermal power generating capacity. These include the cost of new, enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) technology, still in early development, with current cost estimates for EGS being generally higher than those for both conventional geothermal plants and other, more mature renewable technologies like wind power.

A second factor impacting the development of geothermal plants is geography, as most geothermal power plants up to now have generally been limited to areas with accessible deposits of high temperature ground water. Another inhibiting geographical factor is a relative lack of access to high voltage electrical transmission lines.

To round out the picture, completing a geothermal power generating project can take anywhere from four to eight years, longer than completion timelines for other renewable power sources such as solar or wind. Further inhibiting development is the fact that geothermal plants involve significant exploration and production risk, which can result in high development costs.

So, why the optimism? EGS technology, which creates underground steam reservoirs when water is injected deep into the ground, is gaining ground worldwide despite its expense, with 252 megawatts of demonstration projects under development in Iceland and Italy.

According to Iceland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and External Trade Ossur Skarpheoinsson, “the age of the geothermal is just beginning,” commenting that geothermal energy is now the “backbone of the Icelandic economy,” providing for 66 percent of Iceland’s primary energy comes from geothermal resources.

Another area interested is geothermal power is East Africa, with Tanzanian Deputy Minister for Energy and Mineral Resources Stephen Masele telling participants at  a workshop on Geothermal Legal and Regulatory Framework in the capital in Dar es Salaam, “The government through the ministry of energy has already formed a task force to strategize and advise the government on how geothermal resources development efforts could be effectively strengthened, coordinated and streamlined to achieve geothermal energy production in the near future.”

Related article: Geothermal Energy Could Provide 20% of the UK's Electricity Needs

But perhaps the biggest change in geothermal’s U.S. prospects is a bill to promote U.S. geothermal energy development, now before the Senate’s Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

According to Professor Jefferson W. Tester, director of the Cornell Energy Institute and associate director of Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, “During this time of gridlock in Washington it is very refreshing to see senators Jon Tester of Montana and Mark Begich of Alaska taking a strong leadership position that connects renewable energy deployment to providing both energy security and creating jobs in America. If passed, their bill will accelerate our utilization of geothermal energy on a very large scale – including the deployment of geothermal heat pumps and using geothermal heat directly for heating homes. In addition, the bill provides for loan assistance to developers, which directly addresses the higher risks and uncertainties associated with exploration. The development of our indigenous geothermal resources is clearly in the best interests of the country as it can provide sustainable base load electric power and heat, complementing efforts to increase other renewable sources such as solar, wind, hydro and biomass.”

Given Washington’s sudden interest in U.S. energy independence, it would seem that geothermal power is at last acquiring some friends on Capitol Hill, a game changer for any efforts to restructure the U.S. power industry, King Coal and Big Oil are not going to be pleased.

By. John C.K. Daly of oilprice.com

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