Empower the Geothermal Earthshot: Solve the Climate Crisis with Earth’s Energy
As a result of human activity, greenhouse gas emissions are increasing so rapidly that climate disaster is imminent. To avoid catastrophe, all economic sectors––industry, agriculture, transport, buildings, and electricity––require immediate energy and climate policy solutions. Only with a resilient and renewable, bipartisan, clean, and reliable partner can America fully decarbonize its economy and avert the devastating effects of climate change. As America’s clean energy transformation proceeds, there is one energy technology up for the task across all these sectors––geothermal.
Geothermal is the energy source naturally produced by the Earth. It is a proven technology with decades of utilization across the United States, including New York, Idaho, North Dakota, California, Arkansas, New Mexico, and everywhere in between.
Government agencies and academic institutions have already identified more than enough untapped Earth-powered energy in the United States alone to meet the nation’s energy needs while also achieving its emissions goals. In fact, the total amount of heat energy in the Earth’s crust is many times greater than the energy available globally from all fossil fuels.
Despite these benefits, geothermal represented just 0.4% of total U.S. utility-scale electricity generation in 2021 and only 1% of the residential and commercial building heating and cooling market. What is holding geothermal back is a lack of policy attention at both the federal and state levels. Geothermal has been drastically underfunded and continues to be left out of energy, climate, and appropriations legislation. By acting as the primary facilitator and coordinator for geothermal technology policy and deployment, the U.S. government can significantly accelerate the clean energy transformation.
Our Empowering the Geothermal Earthshot proposal is a multibillion dollar interagency effort to facilitate the energy revolution America needs to finally solve the climate crisis and complete its clean energy transformation. This top-down support would allow the geothermal industry to fully utilize the power of the free market, commercialize innovation into mass production, and scale technologies.
Challenge and Opportunity
Geothermal energy––clean renewable energy derived from the unlimited heat in the Earth––is a proven technology that can contribute to achieving aggressive climate goals but only if it gets much-needed policy support. Geothermal urgently requires the same legislative and executive attention, policy momentum, and funding that all other energy technologies receive. The Biden Administration as well as Republicans and Democrats in Congress need to lift up the profile of geothermal on par with other energy technologies if we are to reach net-zero by 2050 and eventually 24/7 carbon-free energy.
On day one of his administration, President Biden charged his National Climate Task Force to utilize all available government resources to develop a new target for reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As a result, in April 2021 the Biden Administration announced an aggressive new GHG target: a 50% reduction from 2005 levels by 2030. To meet this challenge, the administration outlined four high-priority goals:
- Invest in clean technology infrastructure.
- Fuel an economic recovery that creates jobs.
- Protect our air and water and advance environmental justice.
- Do this all in America.
Geothermal energy’s primary benefits make it an ideal energy candidate in America’s fight against climate change. First, geothermal electricity offers clean firm, reliable, and stable baseload power. As such, it easily complements wind and solar energy, which can fluctuate and produce only intermittent power. Not only does geothermal energy offer more resilient and renewable energy, but––unlike nuclear and biomass energy and battery storage––it does so with no harmful waste by-products. Geothermal energy does not depend on extractive activities (i.e., mining) that have a history of adversely impacting the environment and Indigenous communities. The underlying energy source––the literal heat beneath our feet––is local, is 100% American, and has demonstrated gigawatt-scale operation since the 1980s, unlike every other prospective clean energy technology. Geothermal energy offers a technology that we can export as a service provider and manufacturer to the rest of the world to reduce global GHG emissions, increase U.S. energy independence, and improve the country’s economy and national defense.
Additionally, climate change continues to change outside air temperatures and weather patterns impacting building energy consumptions (e.g., heating and cooling), which are expected to increase. Geothermal heating and cooling meets these demands by providing reliable and distributed electricity generation, winter heating, and summer cooling. Geothermal heating and cooling offer solutions to other economic sectors that produce harmful carbon and methane emissions.
Getting to net-zero by 2050––and eventually to 24/7 carbon-free energy––is a community problem, a public sector problem that affects America’s public health, economic survival, and national security. We can get here if geothermal is provided the same opportunities that the government has afforded all other energy technologies.
Geothermal Energy: The Forgotten Energy Technology
Today, geothermal power production is at the same developmental stage that oil production was 100 years ago. Geothermal power production has been proven at gigawatt scale, but in a limited range of locations where conventional hydrothermal systems are easily accessible. Petroleum drilling in the United States began in 1859 and expanded first in places where oil was visible, easily identifiable, and quickly accessible. In the 150 years since, continuous market support from governments and societies has allowed the fossil fuel economy not just to continue but to expand through technology innovation. Fossil fuel technologies have matured to the point where engineers regularly drill seven to eight miles underground, drill in deep ocean water, and utilize efficient recovery technologies such as steam-assisted gravity drainage.
Geothermal carries the same potential to drive new technologies of energy production and enable huge increases in energy recovery and output. However, unlike the petroleum industry, geothermal energy has never received comparable and effective policy support from the federal and state governments to drive this needed technology development, innovation, and deployment. As a result, the geothermal industry has been left behind in the United States.
Ironically, the fact that geothermal technologies have a long and successful track record has kept them out of the “new technology” focus that has been central to clean energy transition policy discussions.
Other technologies (e.g., hydro, solar, hydrocarbons, nuclear, biofuels, and wind) receive tens of billions of dollars each year to develop a path to continued, preferred, and widespread use, which generates commercialization, scalability, and profit. However, similar investment strategies have not been dedicated to geothermal energy infrastructure development.
The United States needs critical capital investments to reach the vast amount of untapped Earth energy scientists have identified, expand the range of places where geothermal resources are possible, and lower the cost of geothermal drilling and production. Public investment will promote technologies such as heating and cooling systems that use individualized geothermal heat pumps (GHP) or district thermal systems. Significant public investment is needed in electricity generation technologies such as closed-loop, deep super hot rock, and enhanced systems (EGS). And of course, public and private investments are needed to help manufacturing and agricultural processes switch from fossil fuels to geothermal.
Investing in Our Future: Empowering the Geothermal Earthshot
Thankfully, investing in America’s energy infrastructure is a priority of our current presidential administration. As indicated in the April 2021 White House Fact Sheet and supported by Executive Order 14057 and the Department of Energy (DOE) Enhanced Geothermal Earthshot announced in September 2022, the Biden Administration realizes the need to marshal federal resources in a coordinated effort.
However, to fully realize and build upon the administration’s clean energy objectives, this proposal urges a holistic approach to empower geothermal deployment. The Enhanced Geothermal Earthshot falls short of the effort required to empower geothermal and scale a solution to draw down the climate crisis because it focuses on a single geothermal technology and involves just one federal agency. Instead, a whole-of-geothermal approach that harnesses the power of the entire federal government is necessary to create ambitious, positive, and widespread changes in America’s energy landscape and subvert the current fossil fuel status quo. The following action plan will usher in the geothermal era and ensure the United States meets its climate objectives and completes the clean energy transformation.
Plan of Action
The Biden Administration must set the targets and the agenda, propose policy and tax support, negotiate for appropriations, and issue regulatory support that allows commercialization and deployment of every possible Earth-powered technology solution. These steps will set up the market conditions for the private sector to commercialize and scale these proven technologies and new innovations.
Creating policies and programs to support geothermal applications and technologies will accelerate the clean energy transformation and end our dependence on hydrocarbons. The U.S. government can usher in a new age of clean, renewable, and local energy through a combination of innovation, programs, and institutionalization. These are outlined in the recommendations detailed below.
Recommendation 1. Empower a Holistic Geothermal Earthshot
The Biden Administration should build upon and broaden the Enhanced Geothermal Earthshot to reduce the cost of EGS by 90% to $45 per megawatt hour by 2035. The administration should set a target for geothermal heat pumps and district thermal systems to reach 35% of U.S. energy consumption by 2035 and electricity generation to reach 10% of energy consumption by 2035. These objectives are in response to the administration’s carbon reduction goals for 2030 and 2050. To begin this initiative, President Biden––joined by the Secretaries of Energy, the Interior, Commerce, Defense, and Agriculture, as well as special climate and environment envoys and advisors and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, among others—should formally usher in a reimagined and holistic Geothermal Earthshot that leverages a whole-of-government approach.
Recommendation 2. Institutionalize and Coordinate Earth Energy Support
Create the Office of Earth Energy (OEE) at DOE through the president’s annual budget proposal. The OEE’s mission will be to coalesce federal and state governments, familiarize the public, and support all types of Earth-powered energy technologies.
- Model the OEE after the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy (ONE) and Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management (OFECM)
- Inaugurate an Assistant Secretary for Earth Energy to oversee OEE who will report to the DOE’s Undersecretary for Science and Innovation
- Establish three deputy assistant secretaries (DAS) for:
- Low temperature (i.e., direct heat/GHP-GSHP/agriculture/industry)
- Power generation (i.e., enhanced, advanced, conventional)
- Technology R&D (i.e., super hot rock)
- Structure OEE to have branches promoting and supporting Earth-powered systems and solutions by economic sector: industry, agriculture, transport, buildings, and electricity
- OEE annual appropriations of no less than $1.78 billion for operations, research, development, demonstration, and deployment (this funding level is on par with the other energy offices at DOE on which the OEE is modeled)
- Sharpen the focus of the existing Geothermal Technologies Office to be an EGS-specific branch of the power generation DAS within the OEE
Existing DOE offices such as ONE and OFECM offer a proven template from which to model OEE. Geothermal’s potential to address the climate crisis and become a significant part of the cooling/heating and electricity mix in the United States requires significant growth of support within the federal government. The organizational structure of the federal government is imperative to spearhead geothermal development. Raising the awareness and profile of geothermal within the government requires higher-level offices and more senior-level personnel supporting, evaluating, and studying the industry. The three DAS subject-matter designations represent the three overarching applications of geothermal technologies.
Interagency coordination should be led by a Senior Director for Earth-Powered Energy within the National Security Council (NSC). Programs and initiatives involve executive agencies and offices, including DOE, Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of the Interior (DOI), Office of Science and Technology Policy, Office of Management and Budget, NSC, Domestic Policy Council, Department of State, and EPA, among others.
Recommendation 3. Accelerate Geothermal Innovation
The following innovation accelerator concepts can help unlock technical hurdles and unleash private sector thinking to expand the reach of geothermal energy applications. The needed primary research fits into three broad categories: streamlining existing geothermal energy development and reducing risk, technology innovations to support massively scaling the potential range and total energy available from the Earth, and technical refinements to optimize every Earth energy application.
For example, work is needed to reduce technical risk and predictability in siting geothermal wells to make drilling a geothermal well as predictable and repeatable as it is for oil and gas wells today. Reduced risk and greater predictability is critical to private sector investment support.
Commercial and residential heat pumps and district heating systems need R&D support to improve deployability in urban settings and to maximize both heating and cooling efficiency.
Enhanced geothermal systems—those that expand traditional hydrothermal power generation to less permeable locations—have received modest public sector support for several decades but need greater and more focused application of technologies that were developed for oil and gas during the fracing expansion.
Achieving massive scalability for geothermal power means developing technologies that can operate well beyond traditional hydrothermal system locations. Closed-loop and other advanced geothermal technologies promise access to energy anywhere there is heat, but all are currently at the earliest stages of their technology lifecycles and operating without major public sector research support
All of these use cases would benefit from a concerted, government-funded research effort, shared access to innovation and best practices, and a clear path to commercialization.
(A) Propose in the president’s annual budget a geothermal bureau, program, or focus area within the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) dedicated to promoting all types of geothermal innovations, from low- to high-temperature cooling/heating and electricity applications. ARPA-E “advances high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are too early for private-sector investment.” Use this program to support research into new or expanded ways to use Earth energy that are too early or speculative for private sector investment and bring them to the point of commercialization.
(B) Create a new venture capital entity to accelerate commercialization of geothermal innovations by aggressively investing in geothermal-related technologies. Model it on the existing In-Q-Tel organization that has been very successful in driving national security technology development. This would be a new venture capital funding entity focused on commercializing Earth power technology innovation from U.S. government-funded research and development initiatives (e.g., the ARPA-E projects described above) and on exploring technology solutions to problems that remain unsolved across government, industry, and society yet are critically important for dealing with climate change.
(C) Create a public-private Geothermal Center of Excellence (GeoExcel) at a DOE national lab. A sustained and robust public-private research program is essential for innovation, and many agencies leverage private sector investment through publicly funded centers of excellence. Currently, geothermal research is conducted haphazardly and incoherently across U.S. government agencies and DOE national labs such as Idaho National Lab, Sandia National Labs, Lawrence Berkeley Lab, U.S. Geological Survey, National Renewable Energy Lab, Brookhaven National Lab, Argonne National Lab, National Energy Technology Lab, and many more. To augment research within its national lab apparatus, DOE should establish GeoExcel to develop the technology necessary to produce low-cost geothermal power, cooling/heating, and mineral recovery such as lithium, manganese, gold, and silica. GeoExcel would also conduct education outreach and workforce development. GeoExcel would be a multibillion-dollar public-private partnership competitively awarded with multiyear funding. It would interact closely with one or two DOE national labs as well as federal, state, regional, and municipal government agencies, research universities, community college, nonprofits, and the private sector.
Recommendation 4. Create Earth Energy-Specific Programs and Policies
The following programs, funding, and regulatory suggestions should be proposed in the president’s budget and funded or authorized through congressional appropriations or moving authorization legislation. Some recommendations can be achieved through updating rules and regulations.
Programmatic: DOE Demonstration Projects
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) appropriated $20 billion for demonstration projects, including those for hydrogen, direct air capture, and large-scale carbon capture. This funding provides vital capital to incentivize, commercialize, and scale public-private partnerships using the benefits of the free market to build major infrastructure projects that will expand clean energy and advance the energy transformation. The IIJA did not direct any funding specifically for geothermal technologies; yet geothermal provides the critical clean firm and renewable baseload energy that complements intermittent technologies, can be coupled to produce green hydrogen, and empowers direct air capture infrastructure. As part of its criteria for selecting applications for demonstration project funding, Congress should clarify and/or DOE should expressly include and announce that geothermal technology will receive significant demonstration appropriations funded through the IIJA.
Funding: Risk Mitigation and Management
Commercial investment in new technology hinges on risk assessment. Removing risk from new geothermal ventures will facilitate faster commercial-scale deployment and, in turn, lower risk as more projects are completed. Propose a $2 billion risk mitigation fund within the DOE’s OEE specific for district cooling/heating and electricity drilling and exploration projects. This geothermal risk mitigation fund would provide loans to cover a portion (i.e., 60%) of the drilling cost that can be converted into grants if development of the geothermal field is unsuccessful. To minimize losses, a premium can be charged to ensure a positive return based on risk and set limits on total wells covered and monetary claims to limit losses.
This risk mitigation and management structure has been successfully implemented for geothermal projects in Kenya, Iceland, and Costa Rica, countries in the top five of geothermal energy production per capita. To further reduce risk, the OEE should only consider projects that have already completed some exploratory drilling. Before administering commercial debt financing, the OEE should also require these projects to receive concessional risk mitigation support prior to advancing with additional drilling, district cooling/heating system construction, or power plant construction.
Funding: Rural Development
Propose a $450 million Department of Agriculture Rural Development grant program to transition agricultural and industrial cool/heat applications from burning fossil fuels to Earth energy generation. This funding can be used to decarbonize over two million cooling and heating systems used in the agricultural sector in rural America. Agricultural activities such as food processing, pulp and paper manufacturing, vegetable dehydration, dairy processing, aquaculture, greenhouses, processing sugar, and much more can transition to the clean energy economy.
Funding: Community Development
Propose a $750 million grant program to be implemented by the Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration. Grants will be made for high- and low-temperature geothermal developers to partner with municipalities, electric or energy cooperatives, community choice aggregators, and public utilities servicing America’s communities to develop geothermal resources. This funding level could generate between 375 and 500 megawatts of electricity to power between 280,000 and 375,000 households or over 3,500 megawatts of cooling/heating energy and decarbonize two to three million households and commercial businesses around the country. It is important that the clean energy transition equitably and justly empower rural American communities along with urban and suburban communities.
Funding: Tribal Development
Fund a $275 million grant program through the proposed OEE at DOE or the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) at DOI to support tribal nations to develop geothermal resources on their lands, such as electricity generation, industrial and agricultural decarbonization, residential and commercial GHPs or district cooling/heating installations, and recreation. This funding could be used to generate up to 183 megawatts of electricity or 1,375 megawatts of thermal energy for use on tribal lands. Native Americans used geothermal resources for thousands of years before European settlement. Today, tribal lands are the backbone of mineral exploitation, agriculture, industry, and power production in America. These OEE or BIA funds will facilitate the clean energy transition on tribal lands using geothermal resources.
Funding: Military Construction
Propose a $2.6 billion program for distributed geothermal power and cooling/heating projects on military installations across the United States and abroad. The Air Force recently selected two military installations to deploy geothermal energy. In an increasingly contested clean energy economy, we should build secure and resilient military infrastructure using local Earth energy technologies directly on military installations. DOD can use the funding to generate a combination of up to 1,733 megawatts of electricity or 13,000 megawatts of thermal energy to offset its massive carbon footprint from 500 fixed installations, which includes 300,000 buildings. This investment will help all service branches and DOD reach the Biden Administration’s renewable energy generation goals. This funding begins the vital transformation to secure the energy infrastructure of military installations through energy independence and protect our national security interests at home and abroad. Energy and mineral security are paramount for our national security.
Funding: Smithsonian Institution
Geothermal energy is a story of the forgotten energy technology. Propose $25 million for the Smithsonian Institution to memorialize and narrate the history and future of geothermal energy in the United States. Museums familiarize and educate policymakers and the public about the past, present, and future of America. Permanent exhibitions in museums along the National Mall in Washington, DC, will help promote the potential of geothermal resources to policymakers as is already done with other energy technologies featured by the Smithsonian Institution.
Funding: Workforce Development and Community Colleges
The future of the clean energy transformation rests in the education of Americans and a smooth workforce transition of oil and gas professionals into the clean energy economy. Community colleges play a vital role in this transition. Allocate $300 million for the Department of Education to award grants to technical and vocational programs to develop and build geothermal-specific skill sets and needs into curriculums. These geothermal programs will build upon and expand existing programs such as drill rig crew member training programs like that at Houston Community College in Texas or cooling/heating apprenticeship programs like those at Mercer Community College in New Jersey or Foothills College in California. The objective of these grants is to amplify the capabilities of geothermal technologies and deepen the knowledge of professionals who install, sell, market, or manufacture products that could transition to geothermal technologies and away from burning fossil fuels.
Funding: Convert Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells
Expand the authorities of the Leaking Underground Storage Tank (LUST) Trust Fund within the EPA to include the conversion of existing and abandoned oil and gas fields into geothermal wells. The LUST Trust Fund is financed by a 0.1 cent tax on each gallon of motor fuel sold nationwide. Oil and gas wells can be retrofitted or reworked to provide geothermal cooling/heating for low-to-no-carbon direct use opportunities or generate power. Due to the years of development at these sites, the reservoir is well understood, thereby lowering risks and cost of exploration. Alternatively, this program could be a direct grant program funded through the proposed OEE within DOE or through EPA.
Regulatory: Geothermal Permitting Application Processing
Applications to conduct geophysical exploration are currently reviewed by the district office within the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) at DOI that has geographic jurisdiction over the specific geothermal project. Yet many district offices are unfamiliar with the technical aspects of geothermal development, causing significant delays in the review process. Fund $15 million for a national office with a dedicated geothermal team to develop training materials and standard operating procedures and to provide technical support to district offices to ensure timely review of geothermal power and cooling/heating projects on federal lands. Programs that cross-train staff will also improve the ability to coordinate between different agencies and offices.
Regulatory: Categorical Exclusions for Geothermal Projects
Several activities involved in geothermal resource development have no significant environmental effects yet lack an existing categorical exclusion under the National Environmental Policy Act. BLM’s regulations include only one categorical exclusion for geophysical exploration when no temporary or new road construction is required (43 CFR 4 3250); however, it does not cover resource confirmation activities. As a consequence, federal agencies take several months to approve what could be done in a matter of days via a categorical exclusion. Congress has recognized the need to improve the permitting process for geothermal production and introduced several bills to authorize categorical exclusions (i.e., S. 2949, S. 2824, and H.R. 5350).
Tax Support: Cooling and Heating
Propose a 40% tax incentive for residential and commercial building installation of geothermal heat pumps and extend the lifespan of these incentives through 2050, the date set to reach net zero emissions economy-wide. Additionally, the Biden Administration should publicly clarify or amend Presidential Determination No. 2022-18 of Section 303 of the Defense Production Act to include geothermal heat pumps.
Tax Support: Power
Geothermal electricity generation has traditionally been capital-intensive, and investment decisions depend in part on the predictability of tax incentives. This trend is best illustrated by the 1978 passage of the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA). This legislation’s tax consequences created more favorable conditions and a more robust market for renewable-energy suppliers. As a result, PURPA allowed the United States to rapidly increase its geothermal capacity throughout the 1980s.
Rapid deployment and growth after the passage of PURPA illustrates the impact of public policy on geothermal innovation and investment. However, renewable energy tax incentives provided in the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 had intermittent energy and battery storage in mind when drafted. These tax incentives do not adequately support geothermal power development due to sunset clauses. The president’s budget as well as congressional appropriators and authorizers should extend the availability of the 30% Investment Tax Credit (ITC) and 2.6 cents per kWh for the Production Tax Credit (PTC) using a market approach akin to that proposed in the bipartisan Energy Sector Innovation Credit (ESIC) Act authored by Senators Whitehouse (D-RI), Crapo (R-ID), Barrasso (R-WY), Bennet (D-CO), and Hickenlooper (D-CO) as well as Representatives Reed (R-NY) and Panetta (D-CA).
The ITC and PTC are written with intermittent energy technologies in mind. Geothermal requires a tax incentive structure that does not sunset after two or 10 years but rather automatically scales down credits as geothermal technologies’ market penetration ramps up. The ESIC scale down should begin when geothermal reaches 10% market penetration instead of 2%. This empowers the free market to play a major role in commercialization and scaling geothermal technologies and provides much-needed predictability and planning for the geothermal industry. It also ensures taxpayer dollars do not subsidize market-mature technologies as they currently do for all other energy technologies such as hydrocarbon, solar, wind, and nuclear projects.
We can find geothermal energy just below our feet, literally everywhere. It provides 24/7 carbon-free power, cooling, and heating that is safe, resilient, local, and American. A public-private partnership that leverages public-sector investment with private-sector know-how can make geothermal technology a viable replacement for hydrocarbons and a powerful solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We must empower and broaden the Enhanced Geothermal Earthshot through the programs and recommendations listed in this plan of action. In doing so, a reimagined and holistic Geothermal Earthshot can leverage the position and influence of the federal government through a whole-of-government approach, allowing the free market to seize on this momentum to scale and commercialize geothermal energy solutions. This will expand the rapidly emerging technologies that make widespread Earth-energy harnessing possible. As the need for firm, scalable, renewable, stable baseload energy only becomes more urgent, these geothermal innovations make the possibility of continuous, reliable, global clean energy a reality.
No. Unlike some other clean energy technologies that require vital minerals extracted or refined in authoritarian countries including Russia and China, Earth energy technologies and innovations reduce the clean energy economy’s reliance on these foreign-extracted minerals. Resilience from domestic geothermal energy secures our supply chains, conserves from destruction vital forests and habitats from Brazil to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and generates high-paid and sought-after union jobs here in the United States.
The clean energy transformation brings with it a workforce transition. Geothermal technologies offer displaced fossil fuel workers employment opportunities that respect their professional experiences, maintain their community heritage, and preserve their place-based sense of self. Mechanical engineers, drill rig apprentices, drill supervisors, geophysicists, and project managers from the oil, gas, and coal industries all possess skills and training transferable to geothermal jobs—typically, six-figure salaried jobs.
Workers are tired of hearing “trust us” refrains from politicians, the private sector, and government agencies that claim a new job will be found for them. These jobs need to be ready before an individual’s job disappears and not rely on potential tourism or the prospect of relocation to another community.
Geothermal provides solutions to the oil and gas workforce as it transitions to a clean energy economy and protects the integrity and honor of rural American communities once prominent in the fossil fuel economy such as Eddington in Maine, Page in Arizona, Colstrip in Montana, River Rouge in Michigan, St. James in Louisiana, and Winfield in West Virginia. All of these communities have had environmental and public health issues due to hydrocarbons or are experiencing major loss of employment due to closing hydrocarbon-burning power plants.
Rural America is poised to win big in the ongoing clean energy transformation once policymakers harness the vast geothermal potential everywhere under our feet.
Recent heat waves around the world, with record temperatures that threaten food production and even human survival, highlight an important fact: with global warming comes an increasing need for sustainable cooling strategies.
Traditional air-conditioning removes dangerous heat from buildings and provides life-saving shelter and comfort. Unfortunately, air-conditioning systems worsen two other problems.
First, heat is not so much removed or eliminated as it is moved from one location to another. When a building interior is cooled, that thermal energy is transferred to the exterior surroundings. In dense urban areas, this effect increases local temperatures, exacerbating the heat wave in places that are already heat islands as a result of urbanization.
Second, air-conditioning requires significant electricity, placing additional stress on electric grids and generation systems that are already struggling to decrease fossil fuel dependence and cope with the electrification needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Thankfully, this increased demand can be partially offset by daytime solar generation. But nighttime cooling has become a necessity in many places. Geothermal technology has a major role to play here too. Geothermal (i.e., ground source) heat pumps are far more efficient than their air-source counterparts, especially at high and low temperatures.
A ground-source cooling system can reduce building interior temperatures without heating the surrounding air space. But the capital costs for these systems are high. Public-sector support is needed via tax credits and the Defense Production Act to incentivize adoption now plus simultaneous investments in technology to streamline implementation and decrease cost over time.
Intermittent energy technologies have proven they can scale and compete with fossil fuels. But wind and solar, along with battery storage, only get us part of the way through the clean energy transformation. These technologies have made enormous strides in cost-effectively replacing fossil fuels for power generation, but their intermittent nature means they cannot get us “the last mile” to total electrification. They also cannot provide scalable and distributed cooling/heating benefits to decarbonize the built environment or agriculture processes that produce harmful emissions by burning fossil fuels.
A report published by a consortium of scientists and led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimate conventional geothermal could provide 100,000 megawatts of electricity in the United States––enough energy to power 16 million U.S. households––while the Department of Energy estimates geothermal heating and cooling could reach 28 million U.S. households through the use of geothermal heat pumps. These are conservative estimates using proven technologies. Innovative technologies will exponentially grow these estimates with the right and much needed policy support.
Because geothermal energy is a reliable, carbon-free, and renewable source of power, it has wide-ranging applications that meet America’s key agricultural, manufacturing, and commercial needs, including aquaculture farming; dairy production; processing pulp and paper; mineral recovery for use in battery, wind turbine, and solar panel manufacturing; vegetable processing and drying; and zero-carbon electricity generation, to name a few. Find out more uses of geothermal on page 22 in the DOE’s GeoVision report.
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