New Geothermal Energy “Shortcut” Could Be Global Energy Game Changer

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If you don’t know your free air gravity from your Bouguer maps, now is a good time to find out. When combined, the global maps form a one-two punch that could knock the geothermal industry out of the ballpark, so to speak.

Although the geothermal industry has stalled out here in the US, globally, the geothermal energy sector has been growing steadily, and the two maps provide a tool that could cut way down on exploratory expenses and help the industry really take off.

Gravity Disturbance GOCE geothermal energy
GOCE Free Air Gravity Disturbance Map

Global Geothermal Energy Potential

One thing that came out of the 2014 United Nations Climate Summit last September was a working group called the Global Geothermal Alliance. Its mission is to find a way around the main stumbling block to geothermal development, that being the enormous expense, risk, and uncertainty of exploratory drilling.

Let’s pause here and note that we’re not talking about small-scale geothermal heat pumps. We’re more interested in utility-scale geothermal energy, and that presents something of a quandary since, depending on the technology, it can involve significant industrial infrastructure attended by land, air, and water resource issues.

In other words, a geothermal power plant isn’t necessarily “clean,” at least not as far as local impacts go, so we’ll temper our enthusiasm by advocating for careful site selection and mitigation measures.

A Shortcut To Geothermal Energy

The new geothermal energy tool comes to us courtesy of our new best friends: IRENA (the International Renewable Energy Agency) and ESA (the European Space Agency).

Here’s the money quote from IRENA policy and finance Director Henning Wuester:

These maps can help make a strong business case for geothermal development where none existed before. In doing so, the tool provides a short-cut for lengthy and costly explorations and unlocks the potential of geothermal energy as a reliable and clean contribution to the world’s energy mix.

The Global Bouguer and Free Air Gravity Anomaly Maps are provided by ESA. Together, the satellite-derived gravity measurements help pinpoint features that look promising in terms of geothermal potential, without the hassle and expense of other exploratory measures, including drilling.

Those features include areas where the Earth’s crust is relatively thin, “young” magnetic activity, and subduction zones, which is fancyspeak for areas where the edge of a denser tectonic plate is slipping under the edge of the adjoining one.

Who knows why nobody ever thought of this before, but apparently this is the first time that ESA’s gravity data has been deployed as a tool for preliminary geothermal energy exploration.

Since this is just the first go-around, you can expect the next iteration to include more detail, partly gleaned by combining the satellite findings with other data gathered on Earth.

If you want to see the whole shebang, visit the Global Atlas portal where all the goodies are stored.

 So, What Are These Geothermal Energy Maps?

We went over to the folks at for an explanation of the two maps.

The map above is assembled from free air gravity disturbance data gathered by GOCE, aka the Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer satellite launched by ESA back in 2009. It’s a means of charting superficial density variations in the Earth’s crust.

GOCE also collected data to form the Bouguer anomaly map, below. These calculations involve subtracting the effect of elevated land mass and water-filled ocean basins, resulting in a fine-tuned picture of variations in the thickness of the crust.

GOCE Bouguer anomaly geothermal energy
GOCE Bouguer Anomaly Map.

The two maps form a complementary pair by integrating gravity with heat flow, as described by LithoFLEX (breaks added):

Generally speaking, thicker crust produces more negative Bouguer values, thin crust more positive Bouguer values. This is seen very clearly in the high Bouguer values in the oceanic areas and negative Bouguer values for mountain ranges. The free air field allows mapping of geologic structures, from which borders separating rock types are identified.

Although GOCE met an untimely death in 2013 (well actually it ran out of fuel as anticipated), the data it collected has continued to inform studies on climate subjects including ocean circulation, sea levels, and polar ice, as well as practical applications such as surveying — and most recently, geothermal energy exploration.

Onwards And Upwards For US Geothermal Energy

Of course, the new tool doesn’t do all the work for you, but it does provide a quick way to weed out unpromising, high-risk sites and focus on sites where the risk is worth the investment.

Meanwhile, the US geothermal industry sure could make good use of something like that. Back in 2009, the International Energy Agency put the US at the top of the geothermal list, generating 16,600 gigawatt-hours annually from an installed capacity of 3,093 megawatts. The only country that even came close was the Philippines, clocking in at 10,311 gigawatt-hours.

Fast-forward just a few years and you find the US geothermal energy industry lagging behind while other countries — Kenya, for example — are leaping ahead, thanks partly to supportive government policies.

However, it looks like the Obama Administration is set to awaken the sleeping US geothermal energy giant.

Last July, the Energy Department threw down $31 million to start up a next-generation geothermal demonstration site called FORGE for Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy, in pursuit of 100 gigawatts of geothermal potential.

The agency followed up the next month with another $18 million in funding for a new group of 32 geothermal projects, adding to an existing lineup of 150 active projects.

Stay tuned!

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Image Credits: IRENA and

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3150 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey

9 thoughts on “New Geothermal Energy “Shortcut” Could Be Global Energy Game Changer

  • What counties have support for geothermal and which countries are lacking such support?
    Is there a list of installed geothermal and the output?

  • Before you get too excited about the potential of this technology for the US, both ESA and one of the researchers working on the map, Carla Braitenberg, said that data from these satellites are far inferior to proper local geological surveys. For countries that are already relatively well mapped (which includes most of the US), this won’t change all that much.

    It might be a game changer in third world countries though. There, these satellites could identify relatively areas that deserve priority in geological surveying.

  • Geothermal heat pumps is one of the most important sources for renewable energy. It offers good use for renewable wind and solar electricity as heat is easily storable into insulated hot water container. Together with smart grid the distributed geothermal heat pumps are therefore replacing coal powered and heavily polluting district heating.

    Geothermal power has also some potential in some point of the future – has been for the last decade or more – but it is still waiting affordable drilling technology. However, as renewable power is expensive and the renewing rate is too slow for continuous baseload generation, geothermal power could do very good job as a balancing power for cheaper, but intermittent wind and solar power.

    • Jouni,
      not sure what you mean by too slow for continuous baseload. Wairakei in NZ has been going strong since 1958 and has recently expanded. So more than a decade ago, and not really needing to wait for affordable drilling technology.


      • Lardarello in Italy has been going since 1913.

        There is a natural heat flow from the Earth’s core to the surface, so on a long timescale geothermal energy is renewable. You can get local depletion, and wells may have to be “rested” after a few decades, or replaced by new ones at a little distance. This is not very different in effect to the mechanical wearing-out of a wind turbine after 25 years or so, or the slow decline in output of a solar panel.

      • To expand a little on James’ comment, these wet steam geothermal sources like Wairakei and Lardarello are geographically very limited around the globe. The real topic of this post is “enhanced geothermal systems” or hot rock geothermal that requires drilling multiple deep holes through hard rock, followed by hydraulic fracturing and pumping water down under pressure to harvest what would otherwise be dry heat. This technology in principle has very large potential but has been badly hindered by the difficulty/expense of drilling.

  • I’d be surprised if satellite maps add very much to the data available to geothermal prospectors in well-surveyed regions like the USA, or significantly reduce their risks.

    Geothermal does need more, and more intelligent, policy support. The short-termism of US tax incentives is far more damaging than for wind and solar, which can be set up in under half the time. Geothermal also needs price recognition of its fantastic (95%) availability and despatchability. It’s true that the backup problem for wind and solar is ten years ahead in the USA, but it is real and should be planned for. Geothermal is a great candidate. It will only be there at scale if it is nurtured in the meantime.

    I suggest Tina take a more sanguine view of the environmental risks. These are very slight given a modicum of common sense, like not drilling under a major city (Basel) that suffered a major earthquake in historical times(1356). The pilot EGS site in the village of Soultz-sous-Forêts in Alsace has recorded thousands of microshocks, but few detectable by humans without equipment, and SFIK nary a broken window.

    The success of Kenya in geothermal is mainly down to two things. One, a great resource – the easy-to-use hydrothermal kind – in the Great Rift valley. Two, a policy that the state-owned geothermal company takes on all the drilling risks, and sells completed steam-producing wells competitively to power station developers.

    • Yes geothermal needs intelligent political support!
      Could anybody please tell me how many counties in the world have intelligent politicians?
      I live in Canada.
      Some counties do have intelligent politicians, like you mentioned Kenya.

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