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A Clean Resource Too Large to be Ignored - Geothermal Power Gains Steam

Words by Andrew Burger
Energy & Environment

Geothermal power's been something of an orphan when it comes to the drive to transition from fossil fuel to clean, renewable energy economies. That's despite the release of recent studies showing that the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia - Western Australia in particular - have geothermal resources that dwarf their energy needs, and despite the fact that it's a proven, time-tested, economic source of clean, reliable baseload power.

That's not to say that there aren't places around the world where geothermal power project exploration and development isn't ramping up at a fast pace. Boise, Idaho; Reno, Nevada; Reykjavik, Iceland; the UAE's Masdar City; and Perth, Australia stand out when it comes to tapping into and harnessing earth's geothermal resources, according to a Global Innovation Series post on Mashable Tech.

Globally, activity in the geothermal power sector recovered somewhat in 2010 following a weak 2009, as overall investment increased, according to NRG Expert's 2011 Geothermal Report. At the national level, Kenya, Iceland, Mexico and countries in South America - where new exploration concessions have been awarded in Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Peru - will see high rates of growth in geothermal power development, according to NRG's research. Activity in the geothermal power sector is also gaining steam in Western Australia and New Zealand, as well as in Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia. An Abundance of Geothermal Energy Waiting to be Tapped

Recent studies have shown just how abundant the earth's geothermal resources are:

  • US geothermal resources could produce more than 3 million megawatts (MW) of green power - ten times that of the installed capacity of coal power plants today, according to an SMU Geothermal Laboratory study funded by a Google.org grant

  • Canada's geothermal resources have an energy capacity one million times the country's current electricity consumption, according to a Geological Survey of Canada report. An estimated 40 percent are believed to be recoverable with current technologies - that's still 25,000 times annual electricity demand.

  • An analysis by Hot Dry Rocks shows that just two percent of Australia's geothermal potential could generate ten times more electricity than all of its coal and electricity production today.

Inaccessibility may prove that tapping into and harnessing some, even the majority, of that energy to be impractical or uneconomic, but the sheer scope and scale of this clean energy resource virtually assures that there are huge amounts that are worth the effort.

Access to capital is the main obstacle, as developing geothermal power projects have high up-front capital costs. The ongoing successful operation of Calpine's Geysers geothermal power plant north of San Francisco is a testament to geothermal power's economic viability over the longer term, however. Additional hurdles come in the form of assuring environmental safety, as well as proving new enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) technology.

Energy demand surged 5.3% worldwide last year, the highest rate since since 1973, according to BP's 2010 energy review, while annual global greenhouse gas emissions hit a record-high 30.6 billion metric tons, according to an International Energy Agency (IEA) report.

While overall US renewable energy investments have increased at a 14 percent constant annual growth rate (CAGR) from 2000-2009, geothermal power has increased a relatively slow 1.2% CAGR, notes Investment U senior analyst David Fessler.

The US is the world's leading producer of geothermal energy, however. The situation in Canada is especially perplexing, where despite having total geothermal resources estimated at more than 1 million times its energy needs, there's not one geothermal power plant up and running.

It makes you wonder why oil and gas companies aren't drilling for geothermal instead, and why governments in both countries aren't doing more to steer investment capital in that direction.

To be fair, Australia, New Zealand, South American countries and others with substantial geothermal resource potential have also been sitting on huge troves of geothermal energy. That may well change drastically in the years to come.

* Photo courtesy of Hot Dry Rocks