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Tina Casey headshot

Google Earth's New Geothermal Map Reveals New Opportunities

The U.S. is a global leader in installed geothermal capacity, but so far almost all of the activity has been confined to a few western states, primarily California and Nevada with Utah running a distant third. Now a new geothermal study viewable on Google Earth reveals that some of the hottest regions for future geothermal development are in the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. The study indicates opportunities for more U.S. businesses to start up or expand operations, with geothermal energy providing a cushion against fossil fuel price spikes, while helping to alleviate the local air quality issues that are involved when new fossil fuel-burning operations are proposed.

The findings also give rise to the possibility that at least one region of the country, Appalachia, could take advantage of geothermal energy to stimulate an economic revival.

A New Geothermal Map of the U.S.

The study was funded by Google.org, Google's philanthropic branch, in partnership with Southern Methodist University (SMU). Overall, it indicates that the U.S. is sitting on a pile of gold to the tune of three million megawatts of “realistically accessible” geothermal energy potential. By way of comparison, three million megawatts is ten times the capacity of all of the currently operating coal fired power plants in the U.S. The study can be accessed at the Google.org website.

A Better Geothermal Map of the U.S.

The SMU study drew on data provided from oil and gas drilling operations. With this new data, the study achieved about twice as much detail as a similar geothermal mapping project conducted in 2004 by the same research team, SMU Professor of Geophysics David Blackwell and Geothermal Lab Coordinator Maria Richards. Blackwell and Richards’s 2004 study has been the national standard for evaluating geothermal potential, and the new study is on track to assume the same position and to raise the bar. Rather than analyzing geothermal potential in isolation from surface conditions, the latest study incorporates new international standards that measure the practicalities of, for example, drilling under cities or protected nature areas.

Breaking Up the Monolithic Fossil Fuel Economy in Appalachia

A key finding of the new map is that the western U.S., long considered the only cost-effective region for tapping geothermal energy, may have to make room for eastern regions like Appalachia, which SMU identifies as an area of “particular geothermal interest.” That confirms a Google-affiliated study earlier this year regarding geothermal potential in the Appalachian state of West Virginia. If the predictions bear out, Appalachia would be in a better position to pry itself loose from its coal-driven economic base. Though coal is often cited (by the coal industry) as a job generator for the region, new mechanized operations have lead to a steep loss of coal mining jobs, and studies have closely linked coal mining operations to pockets of long term economic depression.

Geothermal Energy and National Defense

The new study also indicates that geothermal energy could play a lead role in the Pentagon's push to transition domestic military facilities off the conventional energy grid across the U.S. In fact, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been an early adopter of the SMU team's work. The agency relied on geothermal mapping last year to project that the Department of Defense could tap enough geothermal energy under its own lands to generate power for all domestic military facilities, with some left over for the civilian grid, too.

What the new geothermal study all boils down to is a new range of opportunities, not only for individual businesses but for entire regions and for national energy policy as well.

Image credit: Geothermal map courtesy of SMU.

Twitter: @TinaMCasey

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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