Geothermal Sources Could Add Significant Power Generation Capacity

By Tom Schueneman
October 8, 2008

A study released last week from the U.S. Geological Survey reports that
geothermal power production could significantly add to electric power generating
capacity within the United States.

The first national geothermal assessment done in 30 years by a governmental
agency, the report indicates that the U.S. has “identified conventional” sources
of geothermal systems that, if fully developed, are capable of generating 9,057
megawatts-electric (MWe). An additional 30,033 MWe of potential power generation
is available from “conventional undiscovered” geothermal sources, and 517,800
MWe from unconventional Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) or high temperature,
low-permeability resources.

By developing the already known conventional sources, the reports says,
geothermal electric power production could expand 260%, adding 6,500MWe to the
total of slightly more than 2,500 MWe currently generated.

We’ve heard a lot about drilling for oil offshore and in Alaska as a means to
increase our domestic sources of energy, but the clamor for “drill now” has
overshadowed the significant contribution geothermal can contribute to our
domestic “energy portfolio”.

The full potential of geothermal

In a press release last week Secretary of Interior Dirk Kempthorne said: “The
results of this assessment point to a greater potential for geothermal power
production than previous assessments.” (In August, the Dept. of Interior held an
an auction of lease parcels for geothermal energy resources on federal land in
Nevada. The auction was the largest geothermal sale ever, bringing in $28.2
million for 105,211 acres.)

Of the few reports released from non-government agencies on the potential of
geothermal power production, one released last year from MIT (pdf) proposed the
United States, already the world’s largest producer of geothermal energy, take a
much more aggressive approach to harnessing the vast stores of heat energy in
the earth’s crust.

“The answer to the world’s energy needs may have been under our feet all this
time,” said Jefferson Tester, MIT professor of chemical engineering at the
Laboratory for Energy and the Environment.

Currently, the U.S. operates geothermal plants from “high grade geothermal
systems” in Alaska, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Utah, and Nevada. The largest
geothermal plant in the world, according to Vancouver-based Western GeoPower, is
The Geysers geothermal field in northern California.

Private companies are investing millions of dollars of research money to
investigate and develop techniques to expand the potential of geothermal. Among
them are companies like Geysir Green Energy and the ubiquitous Google,
announcing in August their plan to invest more than $10 million in Enhanced
Geothermal Systems while pressuring the federal government to increase funding
for geothermal development.

The USGS assessment should help spur development of geothermal energy production
as the goal of fully realizing geothermal’s potential becomes an important
component in creating the new energy economy.


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