Among alternative energy, wind and solar get all the media attention, all the glamour. Yet both suffer from intermittency, from the problem that their power sources wax and wane. Solar disappears at night and weakens when clouds interrupt, while wind has its own unpredictable schedule. By contrast, geothermal draws on heat from deep below the earth to provide reliable base load power 24 hours a day. Unlike solar, it’s also currently competitive with conventional energy costs. Yet geothermal remains the Charlie Brown of renewables (or perhaps the Rodney Dangerfield): Although widespread development is often predicted, such hopes are repeatedly jerked away.
Getting geothermal moving forward was the topic of a recent Geothermal Energy Association conference in Washington, D.C., dedicated to moving the technology forward. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon (an important geothermal state) delivered the keynote address, explaining that regulatory hurdles to geothermal, such as federal land management rules, need to be expedited. In addition, geothermal needs tax credit parity with wind and solar. Wind only took off after it been given relatively long-term government support (although not comparable to the support given oil and gas).
For geothermal, support is critical due to high upfront costs and risks. The exploratory and initial drilling phases can cost millions of dollars and span several years, and might lead to worse results than expected (although they could also lead to better). As Craig Mataczynski, CEO of Gradient Resources, points out, geothermal plants are big, complex projects that can take upwards of five years to complete. One- to two-year incentives won’t work. The government needs to make a long-term commitment for geothermal to succeed. Instead, due partly to the recession, the amount of geothermal power coming online in the U.S. shrunk from 2009 to 2010. Meanwhile, countries such as Indonesia, Turkey, and Kenya continue to move ahead. Alternative energy in America has been hamstrung with our start-and-stop policies and lack of a comprehensive energy policy—it’s bad for wind and solar and worse for geothermal.
Yet the upside of geothermal could be tremendous—for a successful plant, 30 years of stable, affordable energy that emits virtually no greenhouse gases, with an otherwise small environmental impact. The Geothermal Energy Association, along with an international mix of geothermal groups, estimates that, worldwide, geothermal could generate some 300,000 megawatts with current technology—enough to power something like 200 million good sized homes. More advanced forms (known as Enhanced Geothermal Systems) could eventually do much more. With signs of climate change accelerating, why do we continue to pour money into pipelines for shale oil and natural gas and into deepwater ocean drilling? Why not, instead, invest in geothermal and other clean sources that ensure a stable future for humans on planet Earth?