Why isn’t geothermal a larger part of the U.S. energy mix?
“In the last decade, we’ve been rebuilding an industry,” according to Karl Gawell, Executive Director of the Geothermal Energy Association (GEA).
Unlike solar or wind power plants, geothermal energy pumps out predictable baseload power 24 hours a day. There are immense resources in the U.S. and across the globe. And it is relatively inexpensive. Yet it accounts for a small fraction of U.S. energy capacity.
As with any developing resource, geothermal needs consistent federal policy and steady incentives. And the U.S. government just doesn’t engage in consistent, long-term energy policy. Combine that with very low natural gas prices and geothermal growth remains tepid, despite protestations from the trade organization.
The GEA gave an update on the industry this morning, coinciding with the release of a Q1 2012 and 2011 market report.
Gawell of the GEA sees a U.S. geothermal industry “that is still engaged in sustained and steady growth.” He reaches that conclusion by citing a total of five geothermal projects coming on-line in the last five quarters for a total of 91 megawatts. These new projects bring U.S. installed capacity to 3,187 megawatts. Compare that to the U.S. solar industry, which installed 1,800 megawatts in 2011 and will install more than 2,500 megawatts in 2012. (Admittedly, a megawatt of geothermal has a higher capacity value than a megawatt of solar.)
Geothermal firms are currently developing 147 new projects in 15 U.S. states.
The GEA has identified 2,000 megawatts of projects, of which 950 megawatts are in the “advanced stage of development.” There are five projects involved in oil and gas co-production and three enhanced geothermal projects in development. The majority of the projects are concentrated in Nevada and California.
The GEA cited the 49.9-megawatt Hudson One Ranch project as a recent success. We reported on the details of this project last week; it’s the first standalone high-temperature project in the Salton Sea Resource Area in 20 years. Derek Benson, Director of Project Development for Energy Source, remarked that this was “an extremely successful drilling program which found two prolific wells in the resource area” and will employ 55 permanent employees in Imperial County, a region hard hit by the recession.