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Tina Casey headshot

Geothermal Energy Provides Key to Airport Expansion

A new geothermal project for the Portland International Jetport in Maine provides a hint of the potential for U.S. businesses to expand their operations without being hobbled by the high price of fossil fuels, or by local concerns over fossil fuel emissions. While some new forms of renewable energy are still years away from commercial development, geothermal energy is a proven technology that is being installed in a wide range of buildings, from retail stores to military bases. If you're familiar with the iconic image of the Old Faithful geyser, it should be no surprise that the U.S. has vast geothermal resources and is already leading the world in online geothermal capacity.
So far this progress has occurred without the benefit of  federal subsidies on a scale similar to that received by the fossil fuel industry. However, public support for alternative energy is on the rise, and a federal geothermal energy program may become the focus of more taxpayer support in the future. Expansion of the Portland International Jetport

The new geothermal project is part of a $75 million terminal expansion being undertaken by the Jetport. With a $2.5 million grant from the FAA's Voluntary Airoport Low Emission (VALE) program, the geothermal system will save about 50,000 gallons of oil every year, which means about $200,000 in today's prices or more than $8 million over the life of the system. It should be noted that the VALE program is designed to help airports reduce onsite air pollution emissions, so in effect the geothermal system is a twofer: it not only saves money, but it enables the airport to expand while minimizing negative impacts on the local environment, quality of life, and economy. For businesses looking to expand their facilities (and/or their energy consumption) while preserving or improving relations with local communities, geothermal could be the answer.

Geothermal Energy and Nature Conservation

The airport's geothermal system primarily consists of wells drilled beneath the new employee parking lot, which is another twofer: extracting renewable energy from land that is already being used for other purposes. In contrast to fossil fuel harvesting such as mountaintop coal mining, which destroys pristine ecosystems, geothermal facilities can harvest energy from land that is being developed for other purposes, or that has already been developed. This is consistent with a recent study by The Nature Conservancy, which finds that the impact of new wind farms on at-risk wildlife habitats can be mitigated simply by focusing wind turbine installations on land that has already been developed for other purposes. The U.S. EPA has also been focusing on reclaiming millions of acres of brownfields and other former industrial sites for renewable energy and economic development. To ice the cake, parking lots and other facilities that are built over geothermal resources can also double as sites for solar power installations.

Improved Geothermal Technology in Sight

While basic geothermal technology has already gone commercial, further improvements are needed in order to get the most use out of geothermal resources in the U.S. One drawback of conventional geothermal systems is their reliance on pumped water to extract heat energy from underground, making them problematic in areas where water resources are scarce.  However, as previously covered in Triple Pundit, the geothermal company GreenFire has been developing a new system that uses pressurized carbon dioxide instead of water. The new system requires less energy for pumping, and it would be ideal for areas of the country in which a dry climate or competition from other uses would inhibit the development of geothermal resources.

Geothermal and Economic Development

Smart grid improvements will help integrate geothermal energy into the national energy distribution system, so even businesses outside of the geothermal-rich West stand to gain in the future. In a related development, a Google-sponsored project has indicated that West Virginia has vast, untapped geothermal resources, which could help the state shake itself loose from generations-long economic stagnation associated with its reliance on the coal industry.

Image: Old Faithful by your_dudeness on flickr.com.

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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