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View of pipework and Geothermal power plant, Reykjanesvirkjun, South West Iceland.

View of pipework and Geothermal power plant, Reykjanesvirkjun, South West Iceland.

Credit: Guy Edwardes / Nature Picture Library

Geothermal

Call to action:

Expand the use of geothermal energy as a global source for heating, cooling, and electricity.

Geothermal is a nearly unlimited source of renewable energy. It is the heat left over from the formation of the Earth and the decay of radioactive materials within the Earth’s core. This heat can be tapped as a form of baseload energy without interruption, unlike wind or solar power. Geothermal can directly heat buildings, warm and cool with heat pumps, or can be used to power turbines with steam, generating electricity. Geothermal plants and technologies produce minimal greenhouse gas emissions. Despite these benefits, geothermal currently supplies under 1 percent of global energy. This is changing, however, as technological advancements accelerate its potential for wider use. Further research, as well as expanded investment in proven systems, are essential to ensure that geothermal is successfully scaled up as a major source of energy worldwide.

Action Items

Individuals

Learn about the benefits and potential of geothermal energy.  Geothermal energy has been tapped by many cultures for millennia in places where heat and steam are found close to the earth's surface. Iceland heats 90 percent of its homes and buildings with geothermal. Other active locations include the western United States and the Pacific Ring of Fire. Geothermal development has been limited by high initial investment risk and geological and location restrictions. Today, innovations are allowing access to deeper stores of heat as well as the utilization of lower temperatures. As a result, geothermal has the potential to be globally scaled, becoming an important resource in the clean energy transition. From large-scale power plants generating megawatts of electricity to home-size heat pumps, geothermal energy offers a wide range of potential benefits:

  • Simple to harness. Direct-use geothermal, which depends upon a naturally occurring source of heated water, can be used to heat and cool buildings, towns, or cities, bypassing the need for generating electricity. Reykjavik, Iceland, has the largest direct-use geothermal system in the world, and many cities in EuropeChina, and the United States are employing these systems for municipal heating and cooling. Cornell University, Finland, and Bali are all developing deeper wells for direct-use geothermal heating.
  • Cost savings. Directly using geothermal energy in homes and
    commercial operations can save 80 percent over fossil fuels.
  • Low life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions. Geothermal power plants emit 99 percent less carbon dioxide than fossil fuel–burning plants and have lower life-cycle emissions than solar.
  • No batteries required. Since geothermal is continuously available as a power source, there is no need for storage batteries, unlike solar and wind energy, which are intermittent (see Solar and Wind Nexus). The production and disposal of batteries can be environmentally damaging, which gives geothermal an advantage.
  • Less space. Geothermal requires much less land and physical space to generate renewable energy than wind and solar production.
  • Existing energy infrastructure can be converted to geothermal. Utilizing existing infrastructure for geothermal energy production can help transition away from fossil fuels. Abandoned power plants can be repurposed to geothermal energy production. This well reclamation project would be the first of its kind in England.
  • Technological advancements are increasing accessibility. Geological restrictions have been a limiting factor in the expansion of geothermal energy. However, recent developments in enhanced and advanced geothermal technologies, which tap into dry rock and/or very deep reservoirs of heat, potentially allow access to geothermal heat and subsequent electricity generation almost anywhere.

Install a geothermal heat pump where you live or work. Installing a heat pump is one of the best ways for individuals to take action to utilize geothermal energy. They can be up to four times more efficient than conventional heating and cooling systems, require less maintenance, and have a longer life span (see Heat Pumps Nexus).

  • In the U.S., there are substantial federal tax credits to incentivize the installation and use of geothermal heat pumps.
  • In Finland, installation has increased heating by geothermal heat pumps to 15 percent of the national total.
  • The main challenge to installing a geothermal heat pump is the up-front cost, but they can potentially pay for themselves within five to ten years.

Support geothermal energy initiatives in your community. Geothermal can be a key local solution. Communities can work with companies that focus on small-scale geothermal projects to create resiliency. Examples include:

  • The Eden Project in the UK, created on the site of an abandoned clay mine, will run completely on geothermally generated electricity and aims to serve as a model for other projects.
  • Towns are beginning to test and study geothermal heating systems for cost effectiveness and reliability. Projects such as this one in Framingham, Massachusetts can serve as a model for other towns and neighborhoods.
  • This community in Canada is using small-scale decentralized geothermal units to support food production, heat buildings, and bolster the tourism industry.
  • Two colleges in Massachusetts are replacing their fossil fuel–based heating systems with geothermal district heating.

Support advocacy organizations that promote geothermal. Connecting with organizations is a great way to hear the latest news and encourage developments from the geothermal sector (see Key Players below for more).

Groups

Architects and Builders

Design and build new developments that use geothermal energy. As the demand and need for low-emissions construction continues to grow, utilizing geothermal heating and cooling in new construction can be cost effective and profitable.

  • Homes and buildings with geothermal heating and cooling systems offer the prospect of saving money on utility costs to potential clients.
  • This residential and mixed-use project in New York City received a $4 million grant to install geothermal heating and cooling and reduce its projected emissions by 60 percent.
  • This project in Germany is tapping shallow (60 feet) thermal heat for a residential development.
  • Developers are including geothermal heating and cooling to a 7,500-home project in Texas, and another in Oklahoma.
  • This project in Georgia is the first development in the U.S. to be fully heated and cooled by geothermal energy.

Companies

Geothermal Companies

Continue developing technologies to make geothermal more affordable and accessible. Work is needed to increase access to geothermal energy, develop new projects with existing technology, and reduce risk. Examples include:

Work with oil and gas companies to continue to shift resources into the research, development, and implementation of geothermal projects. Some of the biggest players in geothermal are oil companies, who already have access to financial resources, drilling technologies, and equipment infrastructure. Examples include:

Utility Companies

Invest in geothermal. Utilities can continue to work with geothermal energy companies to develop and deliver electricity from geothermal sources to their customers and continue to offer consumers “green pricing” options. By choosing renewable energy sources, consumer demand can directly influence the development of renewable energy, including geothermal.

Governance

Implement legislation to support geothermal. In order for geothermal energy to become widespread, governments need to work cooperatively with the businesses and industries that are ready to develop new geothermal energy. Areas of support include:

  • Mitigating the initial risk of geothermal exploration. The most significant obstacle to more widespread geothermal application is the risk of losing initial investments to failed well exploration. Indonesia has taken steps toward mitigating those risks by partially covering the costs of any failures.
  • Streamlining the permitting process for geothermal projects. From the federal level to the local level, governments can responsibly offer easier access to geothermal exploration and development. Kenya is a leading force for geothermal in Eastern Africa and is an example of a government working to create conducive policies for geothermal development.
  • Creating incentives for geothermal generation and new plant construction. The state of Nevada issued a $12.6 million tax incentive for the construction of a new geothermal plant that will be sold to Southern California’s electricity market.
  • Continuing to create and offer credits so that individuals and businesses are incentivized to convert homes and buildings to geothermal heating and cooling, such as heat-pump credits.

Commit to research and development of geothermal energy. Governments can lead the way for businesses and investors to feel confident in the future of geothermal.

  • FORGE is one of the leading enhanced geothermal projects in the world, sponsored by the Department of Energy (DOE) in the United States.
  • The U.S. DOEnergy is supporting new research and development in geothermal with the goal of cutting the cost of geothermal energy by 90 percent by 2035.
  • Cooperation between governments, such as between the U.S. and New Zealand, can accelerate the availability of advanced cost-effective geothermal technologies worldwide.

Invest in expanding geothermal production. Governments can play a role in accelerating geothermal energy by investing or facilitating private investment.

Train people for jobs in the geothermal sector. In conjunction with spending on geothermal development, governments can begin to prepare a skilled workforce.

Learn

Listen

The Future of Geothermal Part 1: Technology Department and Part 2: The Business Case (Switched On Podcast, Bloomberg News, 31 mins.)

Geothermal Energy—The Basics (Planet Geo Podcast, 33 mins.)

Geothermal Energy (Everything Everywhere Daily Podcast, 11 mins.)

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