The Obama administration has announced $350 million in stimulus funds to help expand geothermal resources and break down technological barriers that stand in the way of its development. This is a huge jump in funding, dwarfing all previous government commitments and is more than all the funding for geothermal energy put together over the last 20 years. It also represents a dramatic reversal of previous trends of diminishing funding for this often overlooked renewable energy sector.
“We have a choice. We can remain the world’s leading importer of oil, or we can become the world’s leading exporter of clean energy,” said President Obama announcing the new funding. “We can hand over the jobs of the future to our competitors, or we can confront what they have already recognized as the great opportunity of our time: the nation that leads the world in creating new sources of clean energy will be the nation that leads the 21st century global economy. That’s the nation I want America to be.”
“We have an ambitious agenda to put millions of people to work by investing in clean energy technology like solar and geothermal energy,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said. “These technologies represent two pieces of a broad energy portfolio that will help us aggressively fight climate change and renew our position as a global leader in clean energy jobs.”
What is Geothermal Energy and What Makes it so Important?
Geothermal energy is a source of renewable energy that harnesses heat from the Earth to provide heating for buildings and for electricity generation. A recent MIT study has estimated that the US has somewhere around 100 gigawatts or more of geothermal energy capacity that could be developed with a reasonable investment in this sector.
This is important not only because it would represents a significant contribution to the overall electric energy generating capacity mix, but also because geothermal energy is a highly predictable energy source. In fact, geothermal plants can operate around the clock and provide uninterrupted “base load” electricity. Base load capacity is the minimum amount of power a utility must provide to its customers. Unlike wind or solar energy, which are subject to variable output depending on weather conditions geothermal energy plants will be able to provide reliable power onto the grid regardless of current weather conditions or time of day. The ability to provide “base load” capacity is a critically important quality and one that distinguishes geothermal energy from other renewable sources such as wind or solar. In this regard geothermal energy is like the large coal or nuclear fired thermal electric plants; it provides a steady flow of energy onto the grid.
To explore a different form of geothermal technology called geothermal heat pumps that uses the ground below us to heat and cool our buildings and provide hot water while using much less energy to do so, see our post: Geothermal Heat Pumps: Good for the Bottom Line, Good for the Nation and Good for the Earth
Recovery Act Funding Will Support Projects in Four Crucial Areas
These are: geothermal demonstration projects; Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) research and development; innovative exploration techniques; and a National Geothermal Data System, Resource Assessment and Classification System.
Geothermal Demonstration Projects will receive $140 Million to support demonstration projects that profile new technologies that enable geothermal energy development in new geographic areas, as well as geothermal energy production from oil and natural gas fields, geopressured fields, and low to moderate temperature geothermal resources.
Enhanced Geothermal Systems Technology Research and Development will receive $80 Million in funding to support research of EGS technology to allow geothermal power generation across much of the country. Conventional geothermal energy systems must be located near easily-accessible geothermal water resources that only exist in a few regions (mostly in the Western States) of the country. EGS makes use of available heat resources that can be found everywhere if one drills far enough down. It proposes to create engineered reservoirs – in suitable rock formations that have a suitable cap rock over the engineered reservoir. These engineered geothermal reservoirs can then be tapped to produce electricity. This is a long term project that many believe holds promise to eventually generate cost competitive clean electricity. The funding is designed to promote enabling research and development that will be required in order to demonstrate the EGS technology.
Innovative Exploration Techniques is slated to get $100 Million in funding to support projects that include exploration, siting, drilling, and characterization of a series of exploration wells utilizing innovative exploration techniques. The upfront exploration costs inherent in geothermal energy projects are one of the principle blocking factors to increased investment and development in this sector. The DOE hopes to help develop and validate new innovative exploration technologies and methods that can help reduce this level of upfront risk and investment in green field projects and in this manner promoting the discovery and development of geothermal resources.
National Geothermal Data System, Resource Assessment, and Classification System will receive $30 Million of funding, which will fund a nationwide assessment of geothermal resources, working through the USGS and other partners; establish a national geothermal data system to make resource data available to academia, researchers, and the private sector and develop a geothermal resource classification system for use in determining site potential. Building a detailed database and characterization of geothermal energy resources nationwide is important for the long term success of geothermal energy.
Geothermal energy certainly has a lot of potential and could become a very important part of our future energy mix. This will be especially true if enhanced geothermal systems technology proves feasible and engineered geothermal reservoirs can be created very close to the large urban power markets. In this case EGS geothermal energy could become the single most important energy supplier of both electricity and co-generated heat resources for much of the nation. It would have the advantage of being able to be sited close to where power was needed, to be able to deliver heat as well as electricity and as with all geothermal resources it would contribute to the base load generating capacity that is so critical to the grid’s functionality.
It is no over statement to say that geothermal energy will be around as long as Earth has a molten core – and that is a very long time. It is essentially renewable and inexhaustible, although fields can become temporarily discharged if over-exploited.
So what’s not to like? One thing that is missing from the funding is any funding for technology or processes that make geothermal energy cleaner. In fact many hot steam geothermal resources and the plants that exploit them are a source of a fair bit of air pollution including hydrogen sulfide emissions. Geothermal energy will need to solve its own emission problems if it truly wants to wear the green mantle that it otherwise truly does deserve.
© 2009, Chris de Morsella. All rights reserved. Do not republish.