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Geothermal Poised to Become Key Clean Energy Source

Electric production from geothermal energy could increase exponentially in the next two decades and become a “key contributor” to the U.S. clean energy mix, a new report indicates.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently released “Pathways to Commercial Liftoff: Next-Generation Geothermal Power”, which is part of its Liftoff series of reports that analyzes the feasibility of new energy technologies and makes forecasts of their potential use.

Geothermal energy generation is seen as a potential clean source of utility-scale baseload power but its use has been constrained by its geographic limitations and cost. Harnessing geothermal energy involves drilling into a subsurface reservoir of hot rock, circulating fluid and bringing the heat to the surface, where it is used to power a turbine. Geothermal power is available around-the-clock, unlike other renewable sources like solar, and produces no emissions. The technology now provides just 0.4 percent of the nation’s electricity and is limited to seven western states, where hot rock is close to the earth’s surface.

However, advances in geothermal technology are happening rapidly, and have the potential to expand its use to other regions. Many of the advances have been driven by transferrable technology from the oil and gas sector, which has made great advances due to its focus on unconventional well drilling, or “fracking,” deep shale layers to free oil and gas deposits.

The improvements in drilling, equipment, geology and workforce can help the geothermal energy take the next step. “Next-gen geothermal approaches leverage technologies developed by oil and gas to engineer human made reservoirs from ubiquitous hot rock, rather than hunting for naturally-occurring reservoirs in unique locations,” the report states.

The report projects that next-gen geothermal could provide 90 gigawatts (GW) of power by 2050 and up to 300 GW depending on the development of storage technologies. That could account for up to one-third of the 700 GW to 900 GW of additional clean baseload energy the U.S. will need by 2050.

Technologies such as enhanced geothermal systems, including the DOE’s FORGE demonstration site, and closed loop geothermal systems are now being tested and have shown great improvements in drilling speed and well development costs. The industry in on track to bring down the average cost of geothermal power to $60 to $70 per megawatt-hour (MWh) by 2030 and meet the program goal of $45 per MWh by 2035, making it commercially viable.

But there are a number of challenges that must be addressed to get to scale, including high up-front costs, operability risks, unpredictable development lifecycles, undervaluation, and community opposition. The report provides suggestions for meeting those challenges, including early-stage development funding, permitting reforms, information-sharing, and community engagement.

One of the areas that could be targeted for advanced geothermal development in future decades  in the Appalachian region, including Pennsylvania and West Virginia, which has an abundance of oil and gas infrastructure and expertise that could be used, as well as areas of favorable geology.

The potential of the Appalachian region has already been recognized, and the W&J Center for Energy Policy and Management is participating in the development of a collaborative report being spearheaded by Project InnerSpace. Slated for publication this summer, the “Future of Geothermal in Pennsylvania” is a follow-up to the first report on the state of Texas. The report will evaluate the geothermal’s potential, the role of each state’s oil and gas industry in its development, and other relevant environmental, regulatory, and legal issues relevant to each state.  The study will help governments, industry, and other stakeholders make informed decisions on increased geothermal development.

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