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Where does Geothermal Fit into the Energy Landscape?

A geothermal power plant.

There has been much discussion about geothermal energy lately and just how it fits into the rest of the renewable energy landscape. As the fourth largest renewable (behind solar, wind, and hydro), geothermal energy is an often overlooked source of power that runs the gamut in terms of utilization.

Much of the outlook for the industry is positive as it begins to expand, but geothermal still may have a difficult time finding its place among the others.

As it Stands

So, where does geothermal stand currently? The answer to that question depends on where you look.

While the U.S. has the most installed geothermal, it accounts for only 0.3% of national energy generation. Still, it makes up 29% of global geothermal generation. The Philippines are a close second, with other countries such as Indonesia and Mexico coming up next.

The clear world leader in terms of actual utilization is Iceland, however, as geothermal accounts for 30% of its national power generation. The country has incredible geothermal resources, as it’s highly active tectonically.

Writing for Forbes, contributor Ken Silverstein believes that the advantage of geothermal is its lack of dependence on weather conditions, such as sunlight and wind. Silverstein also notes the importance of utility support for geothermal, some of which is currently in place and more of which is currently in various legislatures.

California is taking steps toward utilizing more geothermal with SB 1139. It would require utilities to purchase a certain percentage of geothermal energy each year.

“This bill would require, no later than December 31, 2024, each retail seller of electricity to procure a proportionate share, as determined by the Energy Commission, of a statewide total of 500 megawatts of electricity generated by specified baseload geothermal powerplants,” it reads.

Criticism has been levied against the bill and other similar initiatives, Silverstein notes.

“Critics say that all energy forms should compete on a level field and that the additional portfolio requirements distort the marketplace,” he writes.

While this battle plays out in the U.S., geothermal is taking bigger strides nationwide. An MIT study shows that 100,000 MW of geothermal could be produced in the next 50 years—a number that’s 2,000 times greater than the geothermal consumption of the U.S. in 2005.

On the world stage, places such as Indonesia are trying to ramp up geothermal consumption through energy-friendly policies. The country has massive geothermal potential, though is currently seeing it go grossly underutilized. Its current energy profile consists mostly of coal and oil.

"Geothermal energy will ensure energy independence. We are increasingly optimistic because this is a renewable energy that can replace oil, which will lead to increased energy independence," Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (DPR) Deputy Speaker Pramono Anung said.

The key change in policy is a change in classification for geothermal exploration. Previously, it was considered a form of mining, though that is no longer the case. The country believes this will be a boon to the industry.

Where it Will Go

As we’ve already discussed, the future of the geothermal industry looks bright. It’s not without its critics, however. While Indonesia recently moved the mining classification from geothermal exploration, some think that it’s not all that different. The Economist believes geothermal is the new fracking. It calls out “enhanced geothermal systems” as not dissimilar to the controversial oil recovery technique.

“The industry may dislike the comparison, but EGS is geothermal fracking. Millions of gallons of water and chemicals are injected into mostly vertical wells at relatively high pressure, and the combination of cold-meets-hot, pressure and chemistry shears the deep, hot rock,” The Economist writes. “This creates new ‘fracture networks’ through which water can be pumped, heated and sent back to the surface to generate power. Conventional geothermal wells cost at least $5 m to develop, and about half fail. The new technique can reduce the failure rate and extend the size and life of existing geothermal fields. In time, think EGS fans, it will allow geothermal fields to be established wherever there is suitable hot rock.”

Despite these criticisms, the industry is still pushing ahead. Geothermal is taking a greater hold on the western U.S. and companies like Nevada’s Ormat are looking to make that happen.

It remains to be seen where geothermal ends up, but for now, it looks like it’s on its way to finding a place in the energy landscape. 

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