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Geothermal, the 'undervalued' renewable resource, sees surging interest

May 21, 2009

Nearly 200 million acres of public lands, mostly in the West, could become prime generators of emissions-free electricity by extracting steam heat from the earth's core to drive electric turbines.

Yet despite a $400 million stimulus bill allocation to spur geothermal energy production in the United States, industry groups and other experts say the technology remains a distant third behind wind and solar with respect to combined public and private investment in renewable resources.

That could soon change.

Efforts by Congress and the Obama administration to fast-track renewables development nationwide has the geothermal industry on the verge of an unprecedented expansion, the groundwork for which is being established by the departments of Energy and Interior.

The Energy Department is expected this month to announce its list of geothermal projects that will be helped along with the $400 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service are working together to streamline permitting for new geothermal projects that could occur on federal lands.

The moves have sparked a flurry of activity on public land, with industry geologists scouring prospective federal sites in search of exploratory drilling locations that could later host geothermal production facilities, said Kermit Witherbee, BLM's national geothermal program manager.

And just this month, the Interior Department said it would open new permitting offices in four Western states and place renewable energy teams in five others as part of its broad push to expedite renewable energy projects on public lands (E&ENews PM, May 5).

"As a result of all the new stuff that's going on, we're starting to receive new lease applications and we can better deal with them now," said Tracy Parker, the Forest Service's energy minerals program manager.

According to Interior's estimates, by 2025 geothermal power generated from federal lands will produce enough electricity to power more than 10 million homes. If realized, that would be a huge increase over current production and could place the technology on par with the two leading renewable energy resources -- wind and solar.

An underused resource?

While the United States remains the world's leader in geothermal energy production, the industry's current generation capacity of 3,000 megawatts is a pittance compared with the 28,200 megawatts of capacity for wind-generated power, or the 9,183 megawatts of capacity for solar power.

"Geothermal energy is, in our opinion, an undervalued option that needs a serious look and could pay off big if there is a long-range, year-to-year commitment to it," said Jefferson Tester, associate director of Cornell University's Center for a Sustainable Future and an expert on geothermal energy.

Meanwhile, some question whether the recent federal moves, including the stimulus spending, signal the kind of long-term commitment necessary to move geothermal production into the mainstream of U.S. energy supply.

Industry leaders who have consulted with federal officials on the $400 million allocation say it appears the money will be used to develop longer-term commercial technology rather than tapping the huge amounts of readily available energy that could get several geothermal plants up and running.

"This has caused a lot of angst among our members," said Karl Gawell, executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association, the industry's trade group. Gawell said his members want more money spent on technology to reach existing underground resources and to locate the best sites for drilling. The Bush administration consistently cut funding for such work, industry observers say.

"The stimulus money would be a blessing compared to the zero dollars [the industry] has gotten in the past," Tester said. "But I'm equally as concerned about what happens next. If things go back to where they were before, it's the kiss of death."

Prospects for expansion

But a retrenchment may be unlikely given the current momentum toward large-scale expansion of renewable energy production. President Obama has set an aspirational goal of achieving an 80 percent dependence on renewable energy nationwide by 2050.

Meanwhile, Congress is nearing completion of far-reaching energy legislation that includes a mandate that by 2020 at least 15 percent of the nation's electricity must come from renewable energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal.

The Bush administration in December finalized programmatic environmental impact statements for 11 Western states and Alaska identifying 111 million acres of BLM land and 79 million acres of national forests with modest potential for geothermal energy development.

The government has also streamlined the geothermal permitting process, allowing applicants in development-approved areas to secure leases and begin production without undergoing the years-long environmental reviews that industry officials say have slowed U.S. production.

But it will probably be another two years before there is a significant increase in drilling activity and production, said Witherbee, the BLM geothermal program manager. That is because most companies want to do extensive research before committing to build expensive production-scale plants. A single well, for example, can cost more than $5 million to drill.

Much of the new geothermal production in the short term is likely to occur in two states, California and Nevada, which host most of the 530 geothermal leases issued by the government so far, Witherbee said. Lagging investment and anemic past public interest has resulted in 29 of those leases being used to produce geothermal power, yet they still generate about 1,275 megawatts of electricity, he said.

Currently BLM, which handles subsurface leasing for both its lands and those belonging to the Forest Service, is reviewing about 200 lease nominations involving parcels identified by industry as having potential geothermal resources. Besides California and Nevada, nominations have been filed for sites in Oregon, Utah and Idaho, Witherbee said. And other states getting more focused attention include Arizona, Montana, Washington and Wyoming.

"I think we have more geothermal projects under development now than at any time in history," said Gawell of the Geothermal Energy Association.

A 'robust, long-lasting option'

Yet research suggests the geothermal boom could expand even more, with big implications for the nation's future electricity profile, which remains largely skewed toward coal, natural gas and nuclear power generation.

According to a comprehensive Massachusetts Institute of Technology study completed in 2006, geothermal technology "provides a robust, long-lasting option with attributes that would complement other important contributions from clean coal, nuclear, solar, wind, hydropower, and biomass."

More recently, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the nation may have enough super-heated water underground to generate more than 30,000 megawatts of electricity -- enough to power upward of 25 million homes.

And the technology already exists to access a significant portion of the nation's geothermal resource, said David Blackwell, a geophysicist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and one of the co-authors of the MIT study.

Meanwhile, advances in water injection technology may expand that resource even further, he said. Scientists are working to develop a type of geothermal technology in which wells are drilled miles down to the super-hot rocks and water is injected. When the water comes into contact with the hot rocks it turns to steam and powers turbines that generate electricity.

Widescale commercial development of these "enhanced geothermal systems" (EGS) could result in the annual production of as much as 100,000 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power about 85 million homes. These systems could operate around the clock, unlike solar and wind power, providing the much sought-after baseload electricity to millions.

"Geothermal energy from EGS represents a large, indigenous resource that can provide base-load electric power and heat at a level that can have a major impact on the United States while incurring minimal environmental impacts," according to the MIT study. "Further, EGS provides a secure source of power for the long term that would help protect America against economic instabilities resulting from fuel price fluctuations or supply disruptions."

The cost to develop this technology is no more than a $400 million investment over the next 15 years, according to the MIT study. That is the exact amount allocated to DOE for geothermal energy development in the economic stimulus package. "It's only a valuable resource when we figure out how to get it and how to use it," Blackwell said.

Looking beyond the West

The petroleum industry may also hold a key to expanding geothermal development beyond its traditional Western production center, including locations in the Midwest and Gulf Coast, where oil and gas producers have compiled extensive geologic data over decades of drilling.

In much the same way regulators are looking to use abandoned hardrock mines to house wind farms and solar arrays, geothermal experts say thousands of spent oil and natural gas wells could be used to tap into the super-heated water in regions where thick layers of cap rock have made geothermal drilling cost-prohibitive. Blackwell said East Texas and northern Louisiana, for example, could both be potential hot spots for geothermal energy.

Blackwell, whose SMU laboratory last year received a $500,000 grant from Google.org to map geothermal hotspots, said he has identified at least 3,000 oil and gas wells drilled in the last five years that have hit water as hot as 400 degrees Fahrenheit -- more than adequate temperatures for most geothermal systems.

"In the oil and gas areas, there's a lot of deep drilling and we know about the [geologic] conditions already," Blackwell said. "We've been trying to make people aware that there are high temperatures associated with gas and oil development in old gas wells." "If we can use existing formations, it's there" to be mined, he said. 

Source: The New York Times--Energy & Environment //   By Scott Sreater, Special to E&E // Copyright 2009 E&E Publishing. All Rights Reserved.

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Content Last Updated: 02/03/2006