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U.S. Seeks to Expand Geothermal Power


By Julie Cart
Los Angeles Times
January 24, 2000


The Department of Energy is planning to announce an initiative today that seeks
to spur the development of the geothermal energy industry, a highly productive
but still evolving source of renewable energy.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson will present his GeoPowering the West project
and set out ambitious goals that call for geothermal energy to provide as much
as 10% of the West’s electricity by 2020, supply the electric power or heating
needs of 7 million homes by 2010 and double the number of states with geothermal
power facilities to eight by 2006.

Richardson will also announce $4.8 million in grants to advance research in
geothermal energy technology, which taps heat energy from reservoirs under the
Earth’s surface, officials told The Times. Because of its unique geology, this
renewable energy source is available mainly in the West.

“Geothermal power is one such resource that calls out for greater utilization,”
Richardson says in a prepared statement. “It is a clean, reliable and renewable
energy source. In fact, it is already a significant supplier of electricity to
the Western grid with 2,800 megawatts installed in California, Nevada and
Hawaii. Still, that is only a fraction of its potential.”

California’s plants are the nation’s most productive. Led by The Geysers, a
field of plants near Santa Rosa, the state produces about 1,600 megawatts of
power, providing roughly 7% of California’s yearly power needs. The grant
program will fund research in California as well as Texas, Utah, North Dakota,
Idaho and Nevada.

Thus far the main impediments to the industry’s growth have been locating the
best places for drilling and making the process cost-effective.

The initiative will be funded from DOE’s $23-million budget for geothermal
projects. Officials said both the overall budget and the money for the plan will
be increased in the next fiscal year.

Administration officials believe that public education about the benefits of
geothermal energy is as important as helping the industry finance research to
bring down production costs and increase output.

“There is something to the bully pulpit,” said a high-ranking Energy Department
official, who asked not to be named. “These are not self-evident technologies.
There’s a lot of education of the public to be done. Geothermal deserves a
hearing, just as the other renewable sources have gotten.”

Other renewable energy sources are wind, solar, hydroelectric and biomass, which
uses biological products to produce energy or heat. One example is burning corn cobs.

Richardson’s energy-production goals were called “pie in the sky” by at least
one industry consultant, Lou Capuano, president of Thermasource, a drilling and
engineering company in Santa Rosa. But federal officials say the emphasis is on
moving geothermal power–often called the stepchild of the renewable energy
sources–in the right direction.

“These are pretty aggressive goals, but it’s going to take good public policy
and research to get this technology where we know it can be,” said Karl Gawell,
executive director of the Washington-based Geothermal Energy Assn.

Geothermal electric production began in Italy in 1904, but the first geothermal
plant in the United States, at The Geysers, didn’t come on line until 1960. The
Geysers remains the largest producing geothermal plant in the world.

While California is the top producer of geothermal energy, Nevada is projected
as having the most potential because of its extensive heat reservoirs. “Nevada
is the Holy Grail,” said the DOE official.

Capuano said geothermal’s advantages are its minimal environmental impact and
the relative simplicity of the technology.

“What we do is nothing more than mining heat,” he said. “Enhanced geothermal
systems inject water down a hole and bring it out as steam, then pump the
condensed water back. It’s almost like a perpetual motion machine. Our challenge
now is to find the reservoirs … and to make this more economical. Right now we
are competing with natural gas. It’s hard for anybody to compete with natural
gas, as cheap as it is.”

Capuano said experts estimate that only 10% to 15% of the total reserves have
been explored.

 

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