Geothermal energy shows enormous potential as a reliable, sustainable power source. By tapping into the vast amounts of heat stored below the Earth’s surface, geothermal resources can provide constant baseline power to complement intermittent wind and solar generation.
Despite having tremendous geothermal potential, the USA has just begun scratching the surface. This article analyzes the current state of geothermal energy in the US and emerging opportunities for growth.
Sources of Geothermal Energy
There are three main types of geothermal resources:
- Hydrothermal – Natural reservoirs of hot water and steam, typically found along tectonic plate boundaries. This is the most common type of geothermal system used for power generation.
- Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) – Injecting fluid into hot dry rock formations to create artificial geothermal reservoirs. EGS has enormous potential but is still in its early stages.
- Direct Use – Directly using low-temperature geothermal heat for applications like heating buildings, greenhouse agriculture, aquaculture, and industrial processes.
The USA has an installed geothermal power capacity of 3.7 GW, the largest in the world. However, this accounts for just 0.4% of total US electricity generation. California leads domestic geothermal production, followed by Nevada, Utah, and Hawaii.
The Geothermal Energy Association estimates the USA has an additional 30 GW of undiscovered hydrothermal resources and 517 GW of EGS potential. With supportive policies, geothermal could provide up to 8.5% of US electricity by 2050.
Prime geothermal prospects include Western states like California, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, and Hawaii. Oil and gas producing regions such as Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, North Dakota, and Gulf Coast states also hold potential. EGS could dramatically expand geothermal nationwide.
Advances are expanding geothermal viability and lowering costs:
- Enhanced water circulation techniques boost reservoir productivity.
- Composite piping resists corrosion and scaling.
- Flexible floating turbines allow generating electricity from offshore hydrothermal resources.
- Machine learning improves exploration, drilling, and reservoir management.
- Small modular geothermal systems make incremental capacity growth affordable.
Several factors are propelling geothermal expansion:
- State renewable portfolio standards with carve-outs for geothermal.
- Federal tax credits defray upfront project costs.
- Synergies with oil, gas, and mining operations sharing subsurface expertise.
- Microgrid integration in remote towns and communities.
- Hybrid plants co-locating geothermal with solar PV or storage.
- Corporate procurement for zero-carbon baseload power.
However, key barriers to large-scale geothermal adoption remain:
- High upfront capital costs and long development timelines.
- Lack of transmission access from promising remote sites.
- Insufficient subsurface data to locate and characterize resources.
- Limited project financing experience among investors.
- Low wholesale power prices reduce profitability.
Regulatory hurdles for new drilling and exploration.
Realizing the Vast Potential
With supportive policies, research, and public-private collaboration, geothermal energy can become a major pillar of the US renewable energy portfolio. Its constant, reliable output perfectly complements intermittent resources.
Utility leaders that prioritize geothermal development can gain expertise and first-mover advantage. While hurdles exist, the vast untapped potential underlying our feet is too great to ignore. The time is now to tap into geothermal power.