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Published on August 20th, 2012 | by Jake Richardson

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100,000 MW of Enhanced Geothermal in 50 Years in US?



According to a report from an interdisciplinary panel from MIT, the United States could create the capacity for 100,000 MW of enhanced geothermal in just 50 years with relatively modest investments. If you would like to read the full report, it’s here, but be forewarned that it is over 370 pages.

The estimate of what it could cost to ramp up the enhanced geothermal infrastructure is $800 million to $1 billion over a fifteen-year period. (What did Solyndra cost — $535 million?) Solar and wind are intermittent power sources, though storage systems may make them more attractive over time. Geothermal plants, once established, tend to produce energy nearly constantly and can even outperform coal plants.

Though relatively unsexy in the press, the fact that enhanced geothermal has much less environmental impact than fossil fuel or nuclear power plants seems not to have fully registered with the public. Also, because of their very small footprints, geothermal plants may actually be more environmentally friendly than solar or wind plants. Both solar and wind can require large tracts of land, and solar panels need to be cleaned regularly, which potentially means large amounts of  water usage. Of course, wind turbines and flying creatures like birds and bats don’t mix well.

So, why is geothermal flying so low under the radar? Probably the fact that it is underground mostly is a contributing factor — very few lay people have seen any photos of the mechanisms involved, nor have they visited a geothermal plant to see firsthand what the technology looks like.

Perhaps Romney and Obama need to investigate enhanced geothermal technology more closely as well, instead of going back and forth about coal and solar. If Oregon’s Newberry Volcano has enough geothermal potential to power the whole state, how could geothermal be overlooked ever again?

Image Credit: Stepheng3, Wiki Commons, Public Domain

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Hello, I have been writing online for some time, and enjoy the outdoors. If you like, you can follow me on Google Plus.



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  • http://cleantechnica.com/ Zachary Shahan

    quite common to stick to MW. nothing incorrect about it, since it’s the same amt.

  • jmdesp

    Actually :
    - The largest geothermal location in the US is The Geysers
    - It’s a unique formation. It’s very rare on earth to have that much geothermal energy at that low a depth
    - After decade of intensive exploitation, it’s now producing very significantly less than it used too.
    - The company Altarocks tried to restart production with new drilling
    - It received around $36 millions for that from various source including Google and the US department of energy
    - At the end of 2009, they gave up the project. The thought it would be easy. In real life, their drilling repeatedly got stuck in caprock until they gave up and call it quit

    There is not 100 GW of geothermal resource available in the US, you are day dreaming.
    In poster-boy Island, they actually have only 500 MW usable for electricity, all the rest is low temperature geothermal they use for heating.

    • Bob_Wallace

      This is about enhanced geothermal – drilling down to hot rocks, injecting water, and harvesting the heat from steam. The author did not spell that out.

      Does the US have 100GW of geothermal potential? Well, geologists say we do, you say we don’t.

      Hummmmmmmmmm……….. Who do I find more believable.

      • jmdesp

        No, some geologists say they want to receive big money to try to find out if there is 100GW of geothermal available. So they want a lot of money and they are ready to make stupendous promises to get it.

        Let’s tell them that we are going to sue their pants off if it’s not there or if it’s not recoverable at anything resembling a reasonable cost, and we’ll see if they stay as affirmative as now.

        Also what *you* seem to not have registered, is that so-called enhanced geothermal involves hydraulic fracking, and so has a lot more similarities with shale gas extraction than you’d ever believe.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Gosh, I totally understand that fracking is involved. Do you know that some of the research now being done is to see if enhanced geothermal fracking can be done with CO2 rather than the chemicals used in natural gas extraction?

          Geologists are not trying to get rich finding out if that much energy is there. We already know that. We know how much energy there is and where it is. That’s finished work. You can look on maps and see where the best sites are located.

          We’re trying to solve some engineering problems of the best way to drill the holes. And the best way to frack once the holes are in. And how to predict/minimize fracking tremors.

    • Bob_Wallace

      All you are saying in this post is that we have not yet perfected the technology needed to extract existing geothermal energy.

      We know the energy is there. That’s settled science.

      Drilling the larger diameter holes needed for enhanced geothermal takes a different type bit than what is used for oil and natural gas. My guess is that someone smart will figure this problem out. What we’re looking for is something that drills larger than an oil well rig but smaller than a tunnel boring machine.

      • jmdesp

        You know there’s a very long list of company and even some countries whose only reason for being hugely rich is that the very fact the energy being there does not automatically mean there’s any easy solution to collect it.

        You’d be surprised at the time, effort, hard science, ingenuity, the Saudi Arabians spend at something as apparently simple as just getting oil out of the ground.

        And you just have no idea how big a number 100 GW actually is.

        • Bob_Wallace

          I probably wouldn’t be surprised. I have some basic knowledge about what it takes to get oil, natural gas and coal out of the ground.

          Those are processes we’ve been developing for more than 100 years. Some of that technology will transfer to enhanced geothermal and the same sorts of hard work and clever thinking will be needed to get past the current hole size problem.

  • juangault

    I don’t know which process would be less expensive, but another alternative to use intermittent/remote energy would be to power the process of turning natural gas into di-methyl ether. A company has made a “skid mounted” converter that takes dirty natural gas from a well and converts it into this other viable alternative to diesel fuel. Solar panels providing electricity on top of a gas field, that produce tanker trucks of domestic fuel (similar to propane) could definitely reduce that billion-a-day addiction our country has. When one looks at the totality of the costs, I bet it would actually be less than diesel refined from crude coming from faraway places.

  • juangault

    the city of Los Angeles has/is deveolping a geothermal electrical source, and the major cost is the transmission lines. Someday, I hope that the energy from remote location, and/or that from intermittent supply like wind, will be used to compress and liquify our abundent (for now) natural gas. LNG is a viable alternative to diesel, which does a lot of the heavy lifting of our society. LNG is also becoming a major player in world energy use. I’ve heard if we could get the trucks that move product around our nation to switch to LNG from diesel, it would eliminate the need for imported oil. T Boone had this idea, and I think it’s a good one, even from an oil tycoon.

  • http://www.facebook.com/matthew.t.peffly Matthew Todd Peffly

    Ok I haven’t read all 370 pages, but the summary appears to be that if the US spent 0.8-1.0 Billion dollars over then next 10-15 years we could know if Enhanced Geothermal plants can be a player in a big way. Then if yes, over the remainder of the 50 years (35-40 years) we could build 100GW. An the blocking issue that is not talk about here is the small(?) quakes you get when you break the rock to increase fluid flow.

    • Bob_Wallace

      You mean a billion dollars like the billion dollars we spend each day on imported oil?

      Spend one days’ oil money over 3,650 to 5,475 days to possibly perfect a source of domestic “forever” energy? (Oops, add in a few more days for leap years.)

      And the small tremors we get like when we frack for natural gas? Those little quakes we’ve experienced during over 100 years of oil drilling? Those wells that bear for a few years and then dry up?

      Seems to me like a tiny bit of money and a pretty small risk to take in order to create a cheap, 24/365 power supply.

      • http://www.facebook.com/matthew.t.peffly Matthew Todd Peffly

        Bob, you are correct about the billion; so let me try to be more clear about my concern here. I was a little short before after reading energy flames elsewhere.

        As best as I can tell the study say that for ~billion we can know in 10-15 years if this idea will pan out and if yes the costs. Hopefully it might be faster but that is what the study is claiming. Kind of like the Thuriom guys given the billion then in 10-15 years they can prove it and then “Be ready to start building them”. I think that we will see several “new” approaches enter the market in the next 15 years, look at the cost of wind 15 years ago. It isn’t the billion I’m worried about it is the 10-15 year wait to know and then get started.

        While that helps us in 2050-2100 time frame. We need a big ramp now in the green power that can hit the ground this and next year! I think today that is conservation, solar, wind, any geoThernal site that work with current tech, small head hyro. Hopefully wave/ocean comes on line over the next 5 years. We can’t wait until 2027 (2012+15) to kick our fussel fuel addiction.

        Heck I would be glad to see cold zero point energy come on line, but I don’t except to see it anytime soon; or in my life more than likely, And I don’t want to wait 15 years to find or prove something better than the green we already have. Lets be at 30-50% of todays total power production by 2027 and then we will have breathing space to make it to 2050.

        • Bob_Wallace

          I generally agree with what you write. But let’s remember that enhanced geothermal, if we can make it work, has advantages in parts of the nation.
          Think about Alaska where the Sun goes away for several months each year and icing of wind turbines can (I guess) be a problem. Enhanced geothermal could generate both electricity and heat during the dark hours.

          Power demands will be down as there would be no need for AC or refrigeration. ;o)

          Install enough enhanced to cover winter, add some solar for summer AC/refrig.

          A billion is small money. About $3 per person in the US. And I don’t think we’re 10-15 years away, but more like 1-5. There are multiple companies working on drill “bit” development. As soon as someone can figure out the bit problem the field is likely to take off. We’ll install away from urban areas while we determine if tremors is actually a problem.
          We know that enhanced works. We’ve got a working plant in Europe. The problem is drilling larger diameter holes in hard rock. That’s an engineering problem, not a problem that needs “science” to figure out.

  • Ronald Brak

    Solyndra cost $535 million? That sounds odd to me unless bankruptcy is done in a funny way in the US. Looking at wikipedia that figure appears to be the government loan guarantee amount, so to find out how much it cost the government you’d have to look at what the company’s assets were at bankruptcy and how much of that their $535 million dollar creditor got.

    • Bob_Wallace

      There all sorts of reasons why that $535 million claim is bunk. Not only has/will the building and equipment get sold which will return part of the money to the government but also a lot of the money spent generated tax revenue and took people off unemployment.

      Some decent account should be done for the Bush/Solyndra project.

    • Bill_Woods

      “Estimates are $24 million of a $527 million government loan will be repaid, and that’s not a sure thing.”
      http://pevc.dowjones.com/article?an=DJFVW00020120730e87uhirat
      Close enough?

      • Ronald Brak

        So about half a billion then? That would have paid for about one and a half gigawatts of roof top PV at Australian prices. Or if used as an incentive to entice businesses and homeowners to install point of use PV, it presumably would have resulted in the construction of a lot more than one and a half gig of capacity.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Well, the problem with that math is that it does not use the numbers that were in play back when the Solyndra loan guarantee was made.

          PV was very expensive by today’s standards. Solyndra had a plan to get solar on flat rooftops at a better price than one could do with panels. It seemed to be a good idea by both energy and financial players. No one predicted that panel prices would take the immense and very rapid price drop that we saw happen after Solyndra was in the process of building a new plant so that they could crank out large amounts of product.

          With the surge in the number of scientists in the early 1960s one would have probably found it quite reasonable to build a new plant to manufacture slide rules.

          Then Texas Instruments released an affordable scientific calculator and the two major slide rule manufacturers shut down their factories in two years.

          One can’t predict what is impossible to predict. When you get blindsided by a development that no one saw coming, that’s life.

          • Ronald Brak

            So I take it that all the people in the US who are shocked by the Solyndra bankruptcy are now busy scrambling to end the loan guarantees for nuclear power?

          • Bob_Wallace

            Yep. They’re absolutely livid at the idea that we would risk any precious tax dollars underwriting new nuclear plants. You should see them marching in front of the White House day and night.

    • http://cleantechnica.com/ Zachary Shahan

      good point.

  • Bob_Wallace

    That’s how the Department of Energy writes it. Can’t tell you why they do. Gigawatts makes more sense to me, but there’s a long history of writing thousands of megawatts.

    • Bill_Woods

      It’s not as bad as measuring energy in millions/billions of kW-h. Sheesh.

  • dcard88

    Like all future tech, we can only guesstimate. Certainly we can expect between 50 and 250 gW each from geo, solar , and wind in 30 to 50 years.
    What did most people think when scientist said it was possibly to fly into space a hundred years ago?

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