Geothermal power currently provides only a tiny fraction of the nation’s electricity. But as states ramp up their transitions to renewable electricity, some leaders see a big role for geothermal as a stable, renewable power source.
Used in the United States since 1960, geothermal plants pipe steam or hot water from deep wells to power turbines that produce electricity. Harnessing underground heat is more expensive than developing wind or solar energy, but experts say the dependable output from sources like geothermal is critical to shore up the grid at times where the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.
Many state leaders have focused on battery storage or preserving nuclear plants to complement their wind turbines and solar panels. Some are starting to view geothermal — which currently provides less than half of a percent of the country’s power — as an underutilized power source that can be accessed 24/7.
“[The capacity for geothermal power] is hugely greater than what we’re generating right now,” said Roland Horne, the Thomas Davies Barrow professor of earth sciences at Stanford University. “It’s not intermittent, it runs all the time, and that’s a very compelling advantage.”
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Experts say that nearly every Western state could tap into more geothermal power, with potential to produce as much as 5% of the national electricity supply using existing technology. Some emerging systems, if successful, could raise that figure as high as 15%, backers say.
Earlier this summer, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat who chairs the 22-member Western Governors’ Association, announced the group would be launching an initiative to explore expansion of the “underdeveloped” resource. The association will study permitting challenges, workforce issues, markets and mapping, among other factors.
“[Wind and solar] will likely continue to be the biggest workhorses of powering the grid, but we see a role for low-cost geothermal electric as part of that baseload solution as we phase out coal and natural gas,” Polis said in an interview. “There’s no doubt in my mind that it will play a significant role in the energy future of the West.”
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