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Is Geothermal the Only Baseload Power Replacement that Makes Sense?

There are no plans for new coal plants to be built in the United States. This opens doors for the geothermal industry possibly more than ever before in U.S. history. In an Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecast to 2018, coal was one of the top-cost commissioning technology options; geothermal was one of the lowest.

The Geysers field in northern California has been producing reliable geothermal power for over 50 years. Photo courtesy of the Geothermal Education Office 

As the nation carefully and in as timely a manner possible considers proposed and existing greenhouse gas emissions regulations, public awareness of health and environmental costs, and mindful economics, coal development is becoming a thing of the past, and the future balance of the power grid is at stake — but answers are available. Geothermal energy is a renewable source of electricity that has the same important baseload qualities coal now provides for over two thirds of the electric power generation in the U.S. at a fraction of the cost. 

“Baseload is always better,” according to Domenic Falcone, President, Domenic J. Falcone Associates, Inc. Falcone is also a member of the Geothermal Energy Association’s Board of Directors. “[I]t assures a steady revenue stream which is much better for financing.”For a nation that’s thinking to the long term, geo plants are:

  • Firm. They can run 24 hours a day regardless of extraneous conditions.
  • Flexible. Geothermal’s flow can be load following or allow for imbalance, can provide a spinning reserve or a non-spinning reserve, and works well as replacement or supplemental reserve.

Falcone says of geothermal’s flow options: “By being able to load follow, geothermal can be reduced during low need time and increased without much effort. There is no need to store power that cannot be used. The price of power can be kept lower than other renewables since more of it is sold than the intermittent power sources like wind and solar.”

Falcone adds, “There are now efforts to marry solar with geothermal so that extra power can be produced during sunny peak hours.

“There is no need to invest in fossil fuel to create heat in order to generate power, so the environment is better off.”But today’s solicitations for renewable energy in Western states tend to ignore these unique benefits of geothermal power. Additional long-term analysis shows geothermal plants are:

  • Small. Geothermal-impacted land in 2030 is expected to be around 7.5 km2/TW-hr/yr, as opposed to 9.7 .5 km2/TW-hr/yr for a coal plant.
  • Hardy. Long-lasting geothermal plants include those at The Geysers in California (since the 1960s) and at the Lardarello field in Italy (since 1904).

Let’s look at that last point. Geothermal plants should last for hundreds of years, assuming they are managed properly. Coal plants have an estimated 40-year life span, and almost all of them in the U.S. were built over 30 years ago. Replacement of coal has already begun, and in the not-too-distant future, each of the existing facilities around the country will need to retire. Because of changing economic and regulatory environments, an estimated 59–77 GW of current coal consumption will be off line by 2016.

The graph “Capacity by Generating Unit Vintage” shows coal plants constructed in California in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s that are all approaching retirement and will need renewable energy replacements since 33 percent of the state’s power must come from renewables by 2020. 

These constitute California in-state coal generation of 1,580 GWh in 2012 that will need a flexible, renewable baseload power source replacement. Beyond that, nearly a third of the Imperial Irrigation District (IID)’s electricity comes from New Mexico coal plants; those facilities will also need to be phased out as they age.

IID recently announced it plans to support 1,700 MW of new geothermal energy as part of the Salton Sea Restoration & Renewable Energy Initiative.

SB 123 in Nevada, passed in June of 2013, mandates 300 MW of coal-fired electric generating capacity in the state be retired by December 31, 2014. The wealth of geothermal resources in this state and the favorable disposition toward these power plants make them a likely contender to provide the needed replacement power.

California and Nevada are taking steps in the right direction that other states may follow. Montana and Wyoming also have vast geothermal resources and will be ready for development if or when the need is recognized; at present the abundant supply of coal in these states makes this something to look at in the longer term. (Wyoming produced 40 percent of all coal mined in the U.S. in 2011).

Some of the best opportunities for expanding baseload geothermal energy in the U.S. are in “the Imperial Valley, New Mexico, and Utah, with further expansion in Nevada,” notes Falcone. In those same states, he adds, there are also many current wells ready for production-level stimulation. 

The Geothermal Energy Association reaches out to the public and policy makers who haven't considered geo power as the U.S. looks to replace its aging coal plant infrastructure in the U.S. West and beyond.  It is an economical, tried-and-true technology that is constantly improving and evolving, and it is the renewable substitute for coal-powered generation.

Outside the U.S., Falcone notes that Mexico is opening up its geothermal opportunities to non-Mexican investors and that Costa Rica is doing great geothermal work. Honduras, he says, is in high need of power, and he mentions countries on the African Rift: Kenya, Uganda, and Djibouti. “They all have tremendous demand,” he concludes. 

Learn more about "The Values of Geothermal Energy" in a 2013 report by the Geothermal Energy Association. 

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