$400 million headed for RD&D

Geothermal Projects Gather $team

Mollie Pettit in the Yellowstone - Grand Canyon.
Mollie Pettit in the Yellowstone - Grand Canyon.

The threat of climate change is driving government action. The Administration has called for “10 percent of U.S. electricity to be derived from renewable resources by 2012 and 25 percent by 2025.”

Geothermal energy, which is produced by taking heat stored in the Earth and converting it into energy, offers one option.

In 2005, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology used funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to generate a comprehensive assessment of available geothermal resources. The report, “The Future of Geothermal Energy: Impact of Enhanced Geothermal Systems,” says geothermal energy is often ignored even though it is “desirable for reaching a sustainable energy future for the United States.”

Congress responded with The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the “stimulus”), which authorized $400 million for the research, development and demonstration (RD&D) of geothermal energy technologies.

Soon after, the DOE issued its own report from its Geothermal Technologies Program. The “National Geothermal Action Plan” gives details on how geothermal programs will be implemented.

Geothermal energy produces near-zero emissions and has minimal impact on the environment. Geothermal also:

  • Lacks the intermittency issues associated with solar and wind.
  • Requires no storage.
  • Has high base-load potential.

According to DOE’s action plan, “even if only 1 percent of the thermal energy contained within the Earth’s uppermost crust … were tapped for use, that output would be equivalent to 500 times the energy contained in all the oil and gas resources known in the world.”

DOE also cited a 2004 survey predicting that geothermal energy is expected to create 1.7 full-time jobs per each mega-watt equivalent of capacity installed.

Initially, the MIT study group had significant technical concerns about geothermal energy – including induced seismicity, geochemical impacts and water issues. Their findings, however, indicate these problems can be resolved or managed with proper monitoring.

Although geothermal energy offers promise, there is one main problem – money. Large investments are required to identify and characterize a resource – and attracting project capital is difficult in the current economic climate.

New technologies to reduce up-front risk are needed. That is why the federal government is investing in geothermal RD&D to develop those new technologies and stimulate exploration.

The DOE report outlines five areas in which the money is being invested. They are:

  • Geothermal demonstration projects get the largest piece of the pie with $140 million. This money will further the investigation of stimulation techniques and will “select up to 10 regional demonstration projects, including green fields.”
  • Projects also can include geothermal energy production from oil and natural gas operations, geothermal resources with low to moderate temperatures and geo-pressured fields.
  • Geothermal research and development (R&D) gets $80 million. Together, the demonstration projects and R&D have the potential to spread geothermal beyond the Western states where geothermal resources and power production are greatest.
  • The exploration activities associated with geothermal are expensive. To reduce the risk, $100 million was invested in the development of “innovative exploration and characterization technologies.” These projects also will help to identify undiscovered resources.
  • According to DOE’s action plan, there is no national database with information on geothermal reservoirs, which is needed by project managers to lower the risk of development. Because of this need, $30 million is being invested in the creation of anational geothermal data system. Funding also will support teams across the United States that will populate the system.
  • The last $50 million was invested in the implementation of ground source heat pumps, which will be used to improve the energy efficiency of new buildings.

The government’s $400 million investment in geothermal energy through the stimulus is on the scale that the MIT report suggested be invested over 15 years. In addition, the geothermal program receives annual appropriations, including $44 million for next year.

Although the costs for geothermal energy will remain high in the short term, MIT projects that the price will decline and will become competitive with other energy resources.

As of March there were 126 geothermal projects at various stages of development in the Unites States. With so much money invested in geothermal energy, scientists and policymakers must not overlook its potential when making projections of future energy sources.

Only time will tell if geothermal energy production will reach its full potential.

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About the Author

Mollie Pettit recently graduated from West Virginia University with bachelor degrees in both geology and mathematics. She was the fall 2009 AGI/AAPG Government Affairs Program intern and plans to pursue a master’s degree in the geosciences upon completion of her internship.

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