Sunday, February 1, 2009

Geothermal is HOT

Geothermal is hot…literally at least.

This underutilized and underappreciated resource that exists beneath our feet could provide us with the next big boom in renewable energy production. According to an MIT report released in 2007, a “substantial portion of the country’s energy needs could be met by mining geothermal resources.” The study indicated that 100,000 megawatts could potentially be developed by 2050. Although the timeline for this is almost 15 years, the cost (approximately $1 billion in research and development) is about the same as that of a new coal plant.

Perhaps even more important than being able to simply supply a lot of energy, is that geothermal is a relatively clean resource. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) states on their website that geothermal applications (heating and direct use) have little to no negative impact on the environment. Due to the manner in which the energy is harvested in addition to the fact that geothermal resources lie beneath the Earth’s surface, greenhouse gas emissions are extremely low. A 2006 report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) stated that “U.S. geothermal generation annually offsets the emission of 22 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, 200,000 tons of nitrogen oxides, and 110,000 tons of particulate matter from conventional coal-fired plants.” In addition, it is a more reliable resource than fossil fuel plants with an average system availability equal to 95 percent.

So, it’s clean, readily available and within our own borders. Why then, is it so often ignored as a reliable energy source? A large reason for this is because it’s the nerd of the renewable resources. You know the kind…the one that’s kinda cool, but not cool enough to get invited to the good parties. It’s the wind and solar jocks that get all the fame and glory.

And, to be fair, rightly so for the most part. Wind farms and solar projects are an integral part of our nation’s energy future. But, we need to make sure we aren’t putting all of our eggs in one basket. Look no further than the ethanol debacle from the world of transportation. Tons of effort and billions of dollars were spent on the idea that corn would save us from our dependence on foreign oil and lead us back onto the path of righteousness. Well, as we all know, it didn’t quite work out that way.

For this, and many other reasons, we need to be careful that our future energy policies aren’t too focused in on only one or two key areas. By now, most people realize that there is no silver bullet that can save us from our energy woes. No giant solar array, wind turbine, hydrogen contraption or gushing domestic oil field is going to present itself as our singular saving grace.

No, the only way we can secure our energy future is to diversify our energy portfolio. In 2007, the EIA reported that approximately 93 percent of the energy consumed in the U.S. was produced from petroleum, natural gas, coal or nuclear power. Renewable or other energy sources accounted for less than seven percent.

To me, this is not diversification. True, we are making progress in terms of building our renewable energy portfolio, albeit slowly, but we are not capitalizing on the technologies currently available to us. We need to focus our efforts on getting the most out of the technologies currently in existence and put a significant amount of money towards developing new sources of energy.

Statistics from the EIA show that since 2003 consumption of geothermal energy sources has remained fairly steady at approximately 0.34 quadrillion Btu (quads) per year. In comparison, consumption of wind has almost tripled (from 0.115 quads to 0.319 quads). Solar, although growing at a slower rate than wind, has also increased a noticeable amount over the past several years. One of the main reasons for the surge in wind and solar production is the federal renewable energy production tax credit. With the passage of The Energy Policy Act of 2005 which made geothermal power generation eligible to receive the same tax credit, geothermal supporters are hoping production numbers will start growing more quickly.

The future may be bright for geothermal energy. A recent New York Times opinion editorial highlighted the benefits of geothermal energy, calling for the development of the untapped resource. As the new Obama Administration pushes for more progressive energy policies, geothermal may actually start making more friends in the energy world.

If we can get the word out about geothermal, as we have with wind and solar, it might just develop into the energy world’s next hot topic. And, in doing so, help balance out the nation’s energy portfolio.


abhishek gaurav said...

Actually ICELAND harnesses only its geothermal sources to satisfy most of its power needs. USA has been using geothermal for quite some time. Stanford University has a separate department dedicated to Geo thermal sources. I am not too sure how much Geothermal sources USA, not the world, just USA has?

czak said...

I thought this post brought up a relevant point with the "not putting too many eggs in one basket" thing since there is no single cure to our energy problem. That being said, after reading the article that was linked about the MIT report, and seeing that development of this resource is dependent on expected technological advancement, it seems that how many eggs we put in each basket needs to be assessed. If both geothermal energy and its 'competitors' (wind and solar) are all in need of innovation and thus funding, then the resource that should be most vested in (in the hopes of advancing it quickly) is the one that is most easily accessible in the long run. For the eastern US, this is still solar and wind, not geothermal.

Even with my nay-saying, this post got me really excited about the possibility that some of our energy needs could be met by such a clean and long lasting energy source.