More than one hundred years after the first electricity was produced from heat generated in the earth, geothermal energy is again gaining steam. As concern grows over the use of fossil fuels and America’s dependence on foreign oil, the nation turns to alternative energy sources. Geothermal energy is stored in underground reservoirs of steam, hot water, and hot dry rocks. Geothermal energy plants do not burn fuel, making them one of the cleanest power sources available to the world today. Geothermal energy is also considered a sustainable energy resource since the heat of the earth is so vast. In fact, it is reported that removing more than a small fraction of geothermal energy from the earth is virtually impossible even if the world relied on geothermal sources alone.

Geothermal power plant

Geothermal power plants, like this one located near San Diego, California, release essentially no emissions into the atmosphere.
Credit: DOE,

Brian J. Anderson, an assistant professor in West Virginia University’s (WVU’s) Department of Chemical Engineering, recently served on an eighteen-member panel of experts who studied the potential for geothermal energy in the United States. The panel, led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, prepared a four hundred-plus page report, “The Future of Geothermal Energy,” which is available online at Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and officially released January 22 after eighteen months of work, it is the first study in about thirty years to take a new look at geothermal energy.

The study found that mining the large amount of heat stored as thermal energy in the earth’s crust could supply a substantial portion of electricity, likely at competitive prices, with minimal environmental impact. The study assessed the feasibility of using enhanced geothermal system (EGS) technology to increase the geothermal resource that could be recovered commercially.

“The drilling and reservoir technologies used to mine heat have many similarities to those used for extracting oil and gas,” Anderson said. “As a result, the geothermal industry today is well connected technically to two industry giants in the energy arena, oil and gas producers and electric power generators.”

“With increasing demand for technology advances to produce oil and gas more effectively and to generate electricity with minimal carbon and other emissions, an opportunity exists to accelerate the development of EGS by increased investments by these two industries,” he added. “Additionally, an increase in the production of geothermal electricity can help offset the potential demand for coal in coal-to-liquid applications, helping to keep electricity prices stable while allowing coal to be used for the production of value-added products.”

Anderson’s role in the study included developing economic models for large-scale technology deployment and scenario-dependent supply curves for geothermal energy, as well as providing the electricity cost projections and performing learning-curve analyses. The WVU professor also served as co-author for the report’s economic chapter, “Energy Sector Fundamentals: Economic Analysis, Projections and Supply Curves.”

Existing U.S. plants have focused on the high-grade geothermal systems primarily located in isolated western regions. The expert panel recommends more detailed and site-specific assessments of the U.S. geothermal resource and a federal commitment to demonstrate the concept in the field at a commercial scale.

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