The US Department of Energy just added $18 million worth of new projects to its geothermal energy portfolio. The sudden infusion of cash adds a whopping 32 new projects to the agency’s existing lineup of 150 projects, so it looks like the Obama Administration is keen on nudging the US geothermal industry out of its long slumber sooner rather than later.
A healthy geothermal sector would complement wind and solar power with baseload capabilities, and it also provides the potential for ensuring a domestic supply of lithium and other minerals of value to the clean tech industry.
$18 Million For 32 Geothermal Projects
The newly announced geothermal projects are aimed at shrinking the levelized cost of electricity for geothermal down to 6 cents per kilowatt hour by 2020, so they cover a lot of ground (sorry — just, sorry).
In particular, one group of 11 projects is dedicated to finding potential geothermal resources where you wouldn’t expect them to be. That covers a huge chunk of the US, mainly in the eastern and western parts of the country from Appalachia to Alaska, including the Pacific Northwest. The strategy dovetails with the Obama Administration’s focus on enabling various regions of the US to tap into local, renewable energy resources.
The Appalachia angle is of particular interest, as the growth of a geothermal sector in that region could provide beleaguered coal-producing communities with a more sustainable economic platform.
The challenge in terms of cost is to keep unproductive exploratory drilling down to a bare minimum. The 11 projects will tweak an oil and gas subsurface mapping technique called play fairway analysis in order to find likely spots where three prerequisites for enhanced geothermal systems coexist: heat, permeability, and fluid (enhanced geothermal refers to the development of underground reservoirs for geothermal fluid, rather than relying on naturally occurring formations).
Also related to the enhanced geothermal topic is a second group of 12 projects focusing on the technologies needed to build artificial geothermal reservoirs without spending an arm and a leg. We’ve previously noted that the basic technology behind enhanced geothermal is cousins with fracking, the notorious oil and gas drilling method. These 12 projects are aimed at technologies that offer greater precision, consequently reducing unexpected impacts including earthquakes and water contamination.
Geothermal Energy And Lithium, Too
Rounding out the $18 million is a third group of 9 projects that looks at ways to capture high-value minerals from geothermal brine, including lithium. Lithium is of particular interest because it’s the secret sauce behind the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that enable electric vehicles as well as wind and solar energy storage.
The problem for the US clean tech industry is that domestic lithium production has been shrinking, partly as a result of low-cost imported lithium, mainly from South America.
A cost effective domestic geothermal brine extraction system would help buffer the US industry from global lithium market vagaries (btw the Obama Administration has a whole $120 million “critical materials” initiative aimed at ensuring domestic supplies for the clean tech industry).
Back in 2011 CleanTechnica noted that a company called Simbol Materials was already dipping a toe into brine extraction technology with a demonstration project at the Salton Sea in California. That project is still humming along. Aside from lithium, the system could result in enough financial bennies to provide for Salton Sea restoration projects.