Everyone knows about renewable energy sources like solar panels and wind turbines, but few know the details about one of the most abundant clean energy resources available: geothermal power. Geothermal electricity is generated by extracting heat from up to 2 miles below the surface and converting it into useable power. The United States produced 3,086 megawatts (MW) of geothermal electricity in 2010, trailing only hydropower, biomass and wind power in terms of renewable energy produced. But the more intriguing statistics are found in the potential long term benefits of investing in geothermal energy.
A recent MIT report indicates that the amount of heat that generated underground in the United States far exceeds the amount of energy used worldwide. It also states that by investing one billion dollars in geothermal research and development, the US could produce up to 100 gigawatts (GW) of geothermal electricity by 2050. That’s the same amount of energy as a train of coal extending from Buenos Ares to Brussels. The worldwide potential of geothermal is even greater; we have enough energy stored in the US to power the entire globe for multiple millennia. Of course we can’t access all this energy given land use availability and technological restrictions, but even accessing a fraction of this energy would create a huge burst of clean energy development.
Geothermal plants also have the benefit of producing relatively few greenhouse gases. A report from KCET shows that geothermal plants produce more than 10 times fewer emissions per MW hour than coal, and about 6 times fewer emissions than natural gas. If the proposed 100 GW of geothermal power is installed, US carbon dioxide emissions would drop by 21 percent. This would be an important switch to a renewable energy source that is constantly being given off by the Earth.
But in contrast to other sources of renewable energy, geothermal power has a relatively high capacity factor (the amount of real time that a station is providing electricity to the grid). Sources like coal and nuclear are considered attractive because they are constantly producing even amounts of power, whereas wind and solar power typically are variable. Geothermal stations use the heat that is being emitted by the Earth throughout the day, every day, making it a more reliable source of power that can contribute to the baseload of the electrical grid, reducing are reliance on coal and nuclear.
The biggest obstacle facing geothermal is simply the cost of setting up a station. High upfront building costs make options like natural gas easier because they require a smaller initial investment. However, natural gas runs the risk of price volatility in the future, produces climate emissions, and is implicated in water and air pollution nationwide through the practice of fracking. Due to the high upfront costs, even with current incentives, investing in geothermal power can be a risky move financially. But new studies have shown that over time geothermal power actually has the lowest cost per KW hour (3.6 cents) of any fuel source currently available. If investors were guaranteed a stable rate of return on their initial investment, geothermal plants will be able to pay back investments by producing cheap electricity.
Clean Energy Victory Bonds legislation would be an important step towards securing a future for geothermal energy. By extending existing tax credits and providing support for important renewable technologies, we will be better equipped to make the transition to a more sustainable energy portfolio. Stable pricing will convince people to make the investment in clean energy that may otherwise be too volatile to pursue. These technologies have proven to produce energy effectively without significantly contributing to climate change. The potential for geothermal electricity is vast; an initiative like Clean Energy Victory Bonds will help us turn that potential into reality.