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Earth Provides Renewable Geothermal Power – But Is The World Catching On?

Leslie Blodgett

What is geothermal energy? Is it renewable and reliable? Is it aff ordable, and is it worth it? These are some of the questions on the minds of the young making preliminary career choices, cities joining the race to meet state renewable standards, and energy companies looking to broaden their portfolios.

Long time members of the geothermal industry can tell you that in the 50 years since the first geothermal well came into being in the United States, there has been no time more exciting than now in terms of nation- and world-wide awareness and curiosity over it. Whether it is geothermal-friendly policies, community-based feelings of environmental responsibility, new training programs and jobs, or new technology advancements, there is a movement happening with geothermal applications and large-scale projects in more places than ever before.

Geothermal and the Renewable Energy Family

How does geothermal energy compare to other renewables? What about that other alternative energy giant – nuclear? Again, these are questions faced by everyone from political decision-makers to energy consumers.

Geothermal is the renewable of choice in California, is high on the list in Nevada, and its charm continues to spread across the States.

Renewable electricity output depends on factors such as fuel prices and changes in electricity demand, as well as plant capacity. A December 2010 Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) reference card shows that while a solar plant typically operates only 69 days out of the year, a geothermal plant is in use for an estimated 274 days each year. This is because a geothermal plant has a baseload energy output. While other renewable resources are often based on weather patterns and must await the sun to shine or the wind to blow, once a geothermal plant comes on-line, with proper maintenance its energy is available every day of the week.

Costs are another major consideration when comparing energy technologies.

It is no secret that geothermal development requires quite a bit in upfront capital costs. But the cost over time is comparable, or even favors geothermal over, for example, natural gas, because the fuel cost at a natural gas facility represents two thirds of the cost. The initial construction cost of a geothermal facility, in contrast, represents around two thirds of its total costs. As analyzed by the California Energy Commission using 2009 data, geothermal has the lowest levelized cost when compared to wind, small-scale hydro, solar concentrating PV, and advanced nuclear technologies.

Policy and R&D

The Pacific Northwest Electric Power Planning and Conservation Act of 1980 and the National Energy Policy Act of 1992 both define geothermal energy as a renewable resource. The latter also established the Wind Production Tax Credit, which was extended to geothermal energy in 2005. Tax credits are currently available through 2013 with a cash grant option for projects starting by the end of this year from the US Department of Energy (DoE) through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), loan guarantees, licensing and permitting, and state renewable portfolio standards.

The DoE has funded geothermal research, development, and demonstration projects in 38 states and D.C. over the past year.

The economic downturn over the past year or more has had its effect on the geothermal industry, with companies strategically checking their movements with that of government funding programs as they make plans for rolling out their wallets as well as their public announcements.

Along with a number of large-scale binary geothermal plants in latter stages of development, applications using advanced technologies are also highly anticipated in 2011. Low- to moderate-temperature geothermal projects, which use water temperatures of between 160-300°F to produce power and/or those that have output capacities of just a few megawatts, are becoming more economical through units such as organic Rankin cycles (ORCs). Regional efforts in research, policy, and technology, are leading to several new hot spots for action in the coming years:

  • West Virginia: With the country’s on-line geothermal plants traditionally located in the Western states, scientists were thrilled in 2010 to discover up to 18.9 GW of potentially exploitable geothermal resources in West Virginia. The study was conducted by Southern Methodist University with support from
  • Washington: In January 2011, Washington State legislators introduced a bill that would separate geothermal resources from both mineral resources and water resources in real property documentation. It would also repeal a prior state law terminating the account for allocation of revenues from geothermal energy. This geo-friendly bill could make a state with ample geothermal resources – but no commercial plants more attractive to investors.

The industry is also expanding into new regions with a number of oil and gas geothermal coproduction projects in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and North Dakota. North Dakota University and Universal GeoPower received Federal stimulus funding, and Louisiana Tank received likewise for a geo-pressured project. Additional technologies receiving funding from ARRA included EGS (enhanced geothermal systems) and innovative exploration and drilling.

Developers in the US

While there were no new geothermal power plants that came on-line in 2010, many projects moved forward in phases of development. In 2011, much of that progress is expected to move into advanced stages and completion.

The Geothermal Energy Association estimates that between 500 and 700 MW will enter advanced phases of construction through 2011, adding approximately 3000 construction jobs to the US market.

The following developers have their sights set on geothermal power expansions, projects, or plants due for completion in 2011:

Ormat Technologies of Reno Nevada, as the largest geothermal development company in the US, has long been a key player in the industry. It currently has 6 projects underway. Efforts include an expansion of the Puna plant in Hawaii, four projects in Nevada, and one in California. The company stated in November 2010 that both the 8 MW Puna expansion and the 15 MW Jersey Valley, Nevada, project would be complete in early 2011. Additional interests include a partnership with Nevada Geothermal Power on a project in Oregon.

U.S. Geothermal, a renewable development company based in Boise, has geothermal projects underway [PDF] in Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, and Guatemala. The 8.6 MW San Emidio Repower project in Nevada is expected to be complete in 2011, and is the first phase in a two phase plan, with a 26.4 MW expansion to follow in 2013.

Ram Power, founded in 2008, has shown interest in development in a number of areas, and has three projects underway – two in California and one in Nicaragua. Phase I of the San Jacinto Tizate expansion in Nicaragua should be complete in 2011. The company already operates a 10 MW facility at the site. Ram is part of a slew of US geothermal companies broadening their business across borders.

Magma Energy, also founded in 2008, is based in Canada, though its main assets are located in Iceland and Nevada. The company made headlines last year with the purchase of Icelandic company HS Orka which was completed in December 2010. An upgrade to their Soda Lake, Nevada, project is due in 2011. Plans include an increase in the nameplate capacity of the plant from 23 MW to 37 MW.

The Navy Geothermal Program, which manages and develops geothermal resources for the military, has a 30 MW project at the Naval Air Station in Fallon, Nevada, due in 2011 or 2012; and Great American Energy, located in Washington, is developing the 27 MW Darrough Ranch project in Nevada, to be completed in 2011.

California remains the center of US geothermal installed capacity, and in 2005 its geothermal capacity exceeded that of every country in the world. California currently has 2565.5 MW of installed capacity. In addition to several projects that could come on-line in 2011, several additional projects are moving forward.

Calpine has reported an expansion of its North Geysers projects for a combined additional 42 MW of power at the world’s largest collection of geothermal fields. Energy Source is working on a 49.9 MW project due in 2012. Cal Energy is working on Black Rock 1, 2, and 3 with 53 MW each.

Nevada has some of the greatest geothermal potential in the US. Its current operating capacity is second only to that of California and includes 20 power plants with approximately 430 MW of installed capacity, with several upcoming projects that could be completed in 2011. Beyond that, ElectraTherm is at work on the NV Mine, a 50 kW coproduction project, and Terra-Gen has its sights on three projects.

Nevada Geothermal Power is working on two geothermal projects in Nevada, and Raser Technologies has one project in the state. Gradient Resources, previously Vulcan Power, opened its new corporate headquarters in Reno, Nevada in 2010; in early 2011 construction will begin on its 60 MW Patua Phase I project near Fernley, Nevada, and it is expected to provide power to Sacramento as early as 2012.

Also on the radar, Raser Technologies is in various stages of progress at projects in New Mexico and Utah.


Leslie Blodgett is the Media and Outreach Director at the Geothermal Energy Association. The association provides annual production and development updates.

Renewable Energy Focus U.S., January/February 2011

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