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Geothermal Searches for Avenues to Build Critical Steam

The teams of geothermal geologists, driven executives and keen marketers assembled in Reno this week for the Third Annual National Geothermal Summit, are easily as optimistic as their counterparts in the solar and wind renewable energy industries, but they perhaps are a tad more perplexed.

Why isn’t geothermal yet taking off like it should? Solar and wind installations are growing at mouth-watering double-digit rates. But geothermal requirements of a longer lead time and higher developmental costs mean that it simply is not cost competitive for a place in utilities’ state-mandated renewable portfolios — if lowest cost kilowatts are the only criteria the utilities consider.

Geothermal plants, after all, require several years of site research, test drilling, and reserve confirmation before a plant can be appropriately scaled, built and tied to the grid. Geothermal then is available 24/7, like fossil fuel plants, but has virtually zero environmental emissions. It can be used as baseload power or for grid firming. And it inherently possesses a sort of energy storage capacity that other types of renewables are still engineering. Thus the key to short-term U.S. geothermal expansion is the recognition of its full scope of value by both utilities and state regulators, until another Congress is elected, officials here say.

So as leading state regulators — with eyes on California and Nevada — begin to link the retirement of nuclear and coal baseload assets to the environmental costs of their replacement, “There could be tremendous growth of geothermal in the United States over the next few years,” reckons Karl Gawell, the executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association (GEA), the Washington-based trade group. “We have the natural resources and the technology, but the policy and the pricing has not yet been optimally coordinated,” he laments.

President Obama’s speech on Tuesday, urging greater advances in greenhouse gas emission reduction, will also play into the strong suite of the geothermal industry, suggests Paul Thomsen, president of the GEA and the director of business development for Ormat Technologies, a leading geothermal developer. “Geothermal is poised for baseload fossil fuel replacement, so the President’s comments are good news for the industry for years to come,” he says. However, more is needed from the federal government, he adds. “It is surprising to see how much the national policies of other countries promoting geothermal energy are tied to climate change; for the last two years most countries have been more serious about this than the United States, so it’s good to see the President step up to the plate. The right signal will be sent to the market,” he says.

As more U.S. geothermal plants come online, the industry is expanding its footprint and its national profile. The low-hanging fruit is primarily located in the West — here in Nevada and California, along with other neighboring states — where high temperature water of 300 degrees or more is readily. Imperial Valley officials are pressing regulators for the addition of 1,000 MW of geothermal power from that region alone. But geothermal projects are now underway in about a third of all U.S. states, ranging from the Gulf to the Midwest to New England, as low-temperature technology -- down to 170 degrees -- is being more broadly adopted, notes Gawell.

Lead image: Empty road via Shutterstock    

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Charles W. Thurston is a journalist who specializes in renewable energy, from finance to technological processes. He has been active in the industry for over 25 years, living and working in locations ranging from Brazil to Papua New Guinea.

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