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Clean Power Kenya geothermal development leads the world.

Published on October 7th, 2013 | by Tina Casey

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US Geothermal Lags Behind While Kenya Sprints Ahead

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October 7th, 2013 by
 
According to a new report from the Geothermal Energy Association, Kenya is set to stake out turf as the global geothermal leader with about 1,000 megawatts currently under development, more than one-fourth of which is already under construction. Meanwhile, despite its vast geothermal resources the US is still cheering from the sidelines and doesn’t even rate a mention in the report’s top five.

It’s not all bad news for the home team, though. The US geothermal industry, which has benefited significantly from government-supported R&D, is still growing thanks to global demand for US technology overseas. Wait for it…we built this!

Kenya Geothermal Is Booming

The Geothermal Energy Association (GEA) report cites government support as the key factor in Kenya’s booming geothermal sector, and when you consider the demand for US technology, it’s logical to assume that at least some US companies are growing revenue as a result.

Kenya geothermal development leads the world.

Kenya geyser (cropped) by Valentina Storti.

That is in fact the case, as demonstrated by the company TAS Energy. Steve Hummel, director of renewable resources for the company, sums up the ripple effect nicely:

Established and emerging international markets including Africa, Turkey, Latin America, Indonesia, and the Philippines present a tremendous opportunity for the United States to export renewable technology, professional expertise, capital finance, and geothermal support services to the needs of this global industry. These key foreign markets have played a significant role in TAS Energy’s growth over the past three years…

Where Is All The US Geothermal Hiding?

As the US has become a leading exporter and export-enabler of fossil fuels including coal and tar sands derived petroleum as well as natural gas and conventional petroleum, it’s nice to know that our renewable energy technology exports are providing a partial counterbalance.

In fact, at a GEA trade show and conference last week, there was standing room only at a presentation on ways to increase US geothermal technology exports.

However, a significant expansion of the US geothermal sector would be a nice thing, too. The US is an acknowledged global leader in geothermal potential, as underscored by a recent Google geothermal survey revealing about three million megawatts in hand.

According to GEA Executive Director Karl Gawell, utility scale geothermal plants would help accelerate the shutdown of aging coal power plants by providing stability to complement wind and solar energy generation and storage.

The market will turn around as geothermal’s full value to the grid is recognized. Its baseload capacity makes it valuable for replacing retiring fossil fuel facilities, and its ability to provide flexible support will add to power system reliability.

In effect, what Gawell seems to be saying is that geothermal is going to provide another nail for the domestic coal power plant coffin, which is already reeling under the blows from low cost natural gas. Of course, that would exert even more pressure on the coal export market, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.

With the era of super-cheap natural gas in the US coming to an end (the growing export market is already playing a role there), it’s also possible that geothermal would beat out natural gas as the “cleaner” fuel of choice for US utilities.

US Army To The Geothermal Rescue

The last time we caught up with the geothermal sector was in 2011, when we profiled a new 15 megawatt geothermal power plant in Nevada, built by Ormat Technologies.

Ormat’s plant was the only utility scale geothermal power plant to go online  all that year in the US, which seems a pretty pathetic pace considering the vast resources at hand. However, the US geothermal bottleneck looks to break wide open sooner rather than later, thanks to the US Department of Defense.

As part of a massive $7 billion renewable energy buy that also includes wind, solar and biomass, earlier this year the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) awarded contracts to Constellation NewEnergy, ECC Renewables, Enel Green Power North America, LTC Federal, and Siemens Government Technologies.


The geothermal facilities will be built on Department of Defense properties under power purchase agreements, in which DoD pays no money up front (the $7 billion represents the value of the energy, not a brick-and-mortar investment by US taxpayers).

If that program goes well, look for the military’s geothermal ventures to spill over into the civilian sector. According to a USACE estimate, there are enough geothermal resources under DoD lands to provide for all of the agency’s electricity needs with plenty left over for the civilian grid, too.

DoD has already been gearing up for a big push into geothermal, Fort Hood and Fort Drum being a couple of examples.

As for government support for geothermal R&D, our taxpayer dollars have gone to core technologies including advanced drills (ironically, adopted by the oil and gas industry for fracking) among many other geothermal research projects.

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About the Author

Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



  • beernotwar

    I know from playing Master of Orion II that when you get to Deep Core Mining on the research tree your colonies become massively efficient. I hear there is a plan to drill down to the earth’s mantle. If this is successful could we drop down a hole in any location whatsoever that would provide geothermal energy? If we dig too far or suck out too much heat will Earth implode like Krypton?

    • agelbert

      You said, “If this is successful could we drop down a hole in any location whatsoever that would provide geothermal energy?”

      It’s not necessary to drill to the mantle. Yes, some areas of the earth’s crust are really hot close to the surface and volcanic areas provide a great geothermal heat source.

      However, for the amount of energy a building needs, any place on the planet below ground level has enough heat below the frost line to obtain a practical amount (100% of heating and cooling with a heat pump) of energy.

      For steam geothermal electrical power, you, of course need to go deeper. The U.S. Government has a web site showing all the best spots in the USA for geothermal power. Just Google it.

  • JamesWimberley

    The USA only has vast untapped geothermal resources if you include EGS – ¨hot dry rocks¨ – as well as conventional hydrothermal. The latter taps underground hot water reservoirs, which you find in volcanically active regions like the Rift Valley. EGS – which could in principle be used in half the continental USA – is still experimental; there are under half-a-dozen pilots being drilled in the whole world, including AltaRock´s Newberry well in Oregon.

    EGS gets ridiculously little funding given its mindboggling potential and characteristics which make it the prefect complement to wind and solar. As you say, geothermal is a compact, safe and above all 24/7 technology. Reliability exceeds anything else, even hydro which can run out of water. All the risks are upfront. Once the wells are drilled, the reservoir stimulated by water fracking, and the small (50-100MW) conventional steam turbines installed, there´s nothing to go wrong.

    • agelbert

      Well said. And the exact same turbines now used in nuclear power plants with exactly the same temperature operating ranges are a perfect fit for geothermal without fissioning fuel rods to worry about.

      I would love to see these nuclear power plants scrapped and their turbines recycled for geothermal power! It would lower the costs of start up on a geothermal power plant considerably.

      Somehow, I don’t think the nuclear power advocates would be too happy with that…

      http://www.pp33.cc/uploads/allimg/130708/5-130FR22H00-L.jpg

      • JamesWimberley

        Wrong size. Nuclear plants are big (ca,1GW) and use large generators in the 500MW range. Geothermal plants are normally 50-100MW.

        • agelbert

          That is only up until now. As long as you have the same target temperature (about 600 degrees), you can, in theory, provide enough steam through feeder pipes to push the large turbines now used in nuclear power plants. Because these steam turbines capture secondary steam for energy, they can be up to 60% efficient. The increased size adds to their efficiency.
          It’s just a matter of doing it. Unlike nuclear power plant heat, geothermal heat is a great investment for a giant centralized power plant. Don’t tell me there are no geothermal hotspots capable of providing multiples of heat power a nuclear power pig can generate.
          That said, I’m certain Kenya, Indonesia and possibly Japan will beat us to it because their fossil fuel and nuclear power corrupting influence is less than ours in the U.S. oil oligarchy.

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