Excuse the catchy title…but I imagine that is not so far from what geothermal insiders are chanting right about now. That’s because geothermal power, long lost in the shadows of wind and solar, is finally poised to come into its own. Though the big mantra has been adopted by big oil, geothermal energy comprises a whole different ballgame. To start, geothermal energy is domestically produced and highly available. It is renewable, results in low emissions, and has low visual impacts.
Recently, a combination of government interest and promising new technology has finally caught the attention of big investors. As a result, geothermal is warming up its engines and getting ready to take off.
At last week’s Geothermal Energy Conference & Expo, industry insiders gathered to ponder and celebrate this newfound interest in their field. What geothermal offers, according to Karl Gawell, executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association, is fast, affordable and renewable baseload power. This can easily be achieved, says Gawell, with the rapid advancement of geothermal technologies. In other words, support from government and investors.
Indeed it seems that idea is catching on. One big boost came as a collaborative report from MIT and the Department of Energy which gave geothermal a positive review, claiming that it could provide another 100 gigawatts of power by 2050. That in turn has attracted some major investors. Take, for example, Google who, as part of their RE<C initiative, will invest over $10 million in geothermal energy.
There are two major innovations that are driving the fresh interest in geothermal: low-temperature resources and Engineered Geothermal Systems. Both promise faster production, lower costs, and higher efficiency.
- Low-temperature resources are harnessed by utilizing a fluid with a lower boiling point than water, allowing geothermal plants to gather energy at shallow depths.
- Engineered Geothermal Systems (EGS) involve drilling deep holes into the insulated rock well below the surface. Water is circulated through the bore hole where it heats up and produces steam to drive a turbine on the surface.
EGS are still a bit down the road as far as commercial-grade production. This is due mainly to the obstacle of drilling holes that are at least a mile deep, especially in the Eastern United States. Geothermal companies are working aggressively on this problem. One technique in the works would erase conventional, steel drill bits from the equation and utilize super-heated water instead.
The potential is there for geothermal systems. And now the confidence, followed closely by the money, is there too. This certainly is a very promising time for geothermal. The U.S. already leads the world in geothermal production, although it makes up a very minute portion of our energy consumption. Still we are a largely fossil-fuel based energy grid. But that’s another advantage that geothermal has over other renewables striving for baseload recognition, it has an innate, technical similarity to the oil and gas industry. As one panel member for the MIT/DOE report put it – and I paraphrase – geothermal is a well-connected industry.
Okay, so all-together-now…Drill Baby Drill!