Policy Primer: Geothermal Energy


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Over the past two decades, polarized climate policy has taken the main stage in almost every energy policy discussion, contributing to the current hyperpartisan political atmosphere and stunted reasoned debate and policy development. Technological advancements, however, have transformed the emerging renewable energy market with countless resources offering cost-effective alternatives to traditional fossil fuels. Geothermal energy is one such option that shows great potential.

Geothermal resources have been used for centuries as a method for heating buildings or water using the heat stored in the ground and can also be used to generate electricity. Drills are used to reach deep underground reservoirs that are heated by the Earth’s crust with the resulting water vapor directed to the surface and used to spin turbines that generate electricity.

Environmentally, geothermal power plants emit 99% less carbon dioxide and 97% less sulfur dioxide per kWh than coal power plants and also cut particulate waste. The residual byproducts are filtered through scrubbers, preventing the release of other harmful compounds that naturally occur in geothermal reservoirs.

Basic Geothermal Technologies

There are a few different types of geothermal plants. Dry steam plants are those described above which drill into the Earth, direct water vapor to the surface, and spin a turbine to generate power.

Flash steam power plants, the most common geothermal plant, use the same process as dry steam plants but they compress the hot water under high pressure. The compressed water “flashes” into steam and is then directed to an area of low pressure that spins a turbine.

Binary cycle power plants use a combination of water and working fluid in a closed-loop to cut water consumption. The hot water is used to heat a working fluid with a boiling point lower than water. The working fluid vapor is then used to generate electricity.

Enhanced Geothermal Systems

Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) involve a process of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” to permeate deep layers of rock and access unreached heat stores. After the rock is fractured, a fluid, often water, is injected into the rock to transfer the heat and then returned to the surface. Paired with new drilling technology, EGS could expand the scope of geothermal energy across the United States. Companies are using advanced vertical drilling and fiber optics to expand the lifetime and viability of geothermal projects. EGS could revolutionize the geothermal energy market.

With these technologies, geothermal plants are no longer restricted solely to high-temperature geographic zones. Advanced drilling techniques allow access to layers of high heat virtually anywhere. Projections from the U.S Department of Energy suggest that geothermal electricity generation could account for 10% of the national energy consumption. But the market solutions do not end there.

Oil Well Infrastructure

Because of the vast upfront resources associated with geothermal exploration, drilling, plant construction, and power generation, the initial capital investment often stands as a preventative barrier to entry. However, more companies are utilizing a unique resource –  abandoned oil wells – to expand production. Instead of plugging these wells, companies are working to repurpose them for the generation of renewable geothermal heat and electricity.

Natural gas facilities show particular promise as they use similar equipment. Using scanning technology developed for oil drilling, massive oil fields can be evaluated for this new kind of recycling. Repurposing abandoned oil wells may allow companies to bypass the prohibitive costs associated with exploration and drilling, allowing them to enter the geothermal market through their prior investments.

Shared Labor and Infrastructure

Oil wells are not the only resource being repurposed. The workers and infrastructure of the oil industry are finding work in the geothermal market. As the energy sector shifts toward renewable energy, the displaced workers and infrastructure in the fossil fuel industry cannot be overlooked. Market innovation has already provided a solution. The skills and generational livelihoods of thousands of workers can be transitioned to contribute to the emerging geothermal market instead of becoming a casualty of the modern age. Geothermal partners, familiar to the oil and gas industry, may include: drilling, fracking, logistics, manufacturing, among others.

While technological developments continue to unfold, the story of geothermal advancement should restore American confidence in the creative force of markets in providing real solutions to the climate conflict.


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