The US has yet to tap its vast geothermal energy resources, and a movement is finally afoot to kick the domestic industry into high gear. That includes the iconic coal and gas producing state of West Virginia. I know, right? Shocker! The Mountain State’s geothermal gold mine may come as a surprise to some, but there it is, and it could help grow a whole new job-creating field in the energy business.
More Geothermal Energy For The US
Geothermal energy is a tricky thing, and it is getting trickier. New geothermal energy facilities are expensive, and geographically limited, and they have to compete with hydropower, wind, and solar for a share of the renewable energy pie.
The Department of Energy has been pumping money into geothermal R&D on a regular basis, but some of the focus has been on promoting geothermal energy as an exportable technology. Compared to new wind and solar development, US geothermal activity has been rather sleepy.
That could change soon. The Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory has just run the geothermal numbers, and they see a significant role for geothermal energy in the sparkling green future.
“Increasing the use of geothermal energy for U.S. heating and cooling can significantly contribute to national decarbonization goals to cut U.S. emissions in half by 2030 and achieve a carbon-free electric sector by 2035,” NREL writes.
For the benefit of non-believers, NREL also observes that “geothermal district heating technology is mature and is currently being deployed widely in Europe and Asia.”
“Significant opportunities for expanding power production exist through cutting-edge enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) technology development, new power plant operational paradigms such as hybridization, harnessing vast coproduction potential from existing oil and gas infrastructure, and critical materials extraction from produced geothermal brines,” NREL adds.
Geothermal Energy & The District Heating Angle
If you caught that thing about district heating, that’s a big deal because it would take some of the heat off the building electrification movement, which has been gathering steam over the past number of years.
In some parts of the US, all-electric homes are common. However, many other regions rely on natural gas or oil to heat and cool buildings. Replacing all that fossil energy with new wind turbines and solar panels is going to be a tough row to hoe, and that provides an opening for geothermal.
NREL points out that campus-type layouts are ideal sites for geothermal district heating and/or cooling, with Microsoft and Google being among the early corporate adopters.
West Virginia: Canary In The US Geothermal Coal Mine
Previous measures of geothermal energy resources in West Virginia yielded slim prospects for commercial development, which makes sense considering that the entire northeastern portion of the US has less than optimal subsurface temperatures for exploitation.
However, in recent years researchers have discovered a “geothermal anomaly” running through the state.
The University of West Virginia is angling to have its campus become the proving ground for the first large scale geothermal heating and cooling system in the northeast region. The school’s campus in Morgantown has already replaced a coal power plant with natural gas and switching to geothermal is the next step, with an assist from the US Department of Energy.
“With an abundance of natural resources literally at our feet, the time is now to reap the benefits of the value beneath the ground. This [Energy Department] funding is a great step forward in having WVU in our hometown of Morgantown be the first to combine the technologies developed by the oil and gas industry in our region to extract geothermal energy for heating and cooling,” enthuses said Brian Anderson, who now is the director of NETL.
Wait, What Happened To Saving All Of Our Beautiful Coal Jobs?
Yes, what about all those coal jobs? When your state’s jewel-in-the-crown public institution of energy R&D makes a hard pivot into renewable energy, something must be afoot.
Indeed, it is. West Virginia’s coal mining workforce bled jobs all throughout the late 20th century and the bleeding has continued over the past 20 years, partly thanks to new technology and systems innovations that reduce human labor to the minimum, as well as competition from other coal producing states.
The Bush administration didn’t help much when it relaxed water protection rules in 2006, enabling a torrent of low cost natural gas to flood the energy market. The savaging of coal jobs continued all through the Trump administration with an added assist from renewable energy, despite the promise of salvation dangled by the former President and accused insurrection inciter.
West Virginia University has not dropped its fossil energy mission, but it has also been prepping for a decarbonized future. Aside from the new geothermal energy project, the Energy Department is also supporting the school’s ambition to become an epicenter of new green hydrogen R&D, which is interesting because West Virginia has been leaning on its natural gas resources to replace coal jobs, and now here comes green hydrogen to knock natural gas out of the picture.
For that matter, fossil energy workers have seen the writing on the wall. Earlier this year the United Mine Workers of America issued a detailed statement that affirmed its mission of preserving coal jobs, but they also advocated strongly for transitioning coal communities into new energy job markets, mine reclamation projects, and other sustainability-themed means of making a living.
Earth To Joe Manchin: Psssst, How About Some New Geothermal Energy Jobs?
Investors are also finally eyeballing the Mountain State for new wind and solar development. Combined with the improved prospects for geothermal energy in the state, it’s getting more and more difficult for West Virginia policy makers to cling to the fossil energy sector for support, unless, that is, their personal wealth is rooted in fossil energy, which for some it is including West Virginia Governor Jim Justice.
Aside from that, the growth of renewable energy activity in West Virginia is making it more difficult for US Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) to keep digging in his heels against President Joe Biden’s decarbonization plan, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.
Senator Manchin might take a cue from another iconic oil and gas state, Texas, where the renewable energy industry has been climbing cheek by jowl with fossil energy production. Texas was an early wind adopter and leader, and its solar sector is also beginning to show up. The state is now aiming at a next-level project to establish a green hydrogen hub to harness its wind and solar resources.
Come to think of it, there is an interesting connection between the Lone Star State and West Virginia in the geothermal energy area. Back in 2010, Texas-based Southern Methodist University received a grant from Google to re-do its 2004 geothermal map of the US. If you guessed the new SMU map exposed West Virginia’s previously unknown status as a geothermal hotspot, run right out and buy yourself a cigar.
School districts in West Virginia are already leaning on geothermal resources and other renewables to reduce their fossil energy consumption, cut their energy bills, and save taxpayers money, so it looks like green jobs are coming to the state one way or another. The real question is whether Senator Manchin would like to take some credit for creating new jobs in his home state, or not.
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Image (screenshot): Geothermal Energy report (via National Renewable Energy Laboratory).