In our power-hungry world, it is important to ask questions about alternative energy options. Traveling the Power Line (University of Nebraska Press, 2013) does just that. Independent journalist and essayist, Julianne Couch, wanted to know the real story about energy production in the United States. Approaching this subject as a consumer, Couch takes us along as she visits nine sites where electrical power is developed from different fuel sources. This excerpt, from chapter 6, “A Little Way into the Earth,” delves into the benefits of geothermal energy and how time limits on federal incentives threaten to undermine future industry growth.
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Alternative energy sources such as photovoltaic aren’t practical for homeowners in all areas of the country, including my part. Neither are geothermal heat pumps serving individual homeowners, such as my husband’s family uses. Of the 8 percent of electricity in the United States that comes from renewable resources, geothermal makes up only 5 percent, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). As Brian Hayes writes in Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape: “Why bother burning coal to make steam when you can just drill a hole in the ground and let the steam come whistling out? The only trouble is it works only in a few places in the world.”
One problem is that not every location has relatively shallow geothermal resources near tectonic plates like the Roosevelt Hot Springs. Developing geothermal power is capital-intensive for reasons Rene Andrews noted. In addition, they are typically located in remote areas, as Blundell’s rural location illustrates. Developing power is one thing: getting it onto the power grid is another.
The struggle in Wyoming to build transmission lines to move its wind power through remote and scenic locations illustrates the type of challenge faced by developers of other sorts of renewable energy, in this case, geothermal. Federal and state governments have developed various policies to increase the use of renewable energy, according to the EIA. The Renewable Electricity Production Tax Credit is a federal incentive that has encouraged an eight-fold increase of wind energy capacity since 2001. An expiration date for those credits was built into the law that established them. The tax credit for wind expired at the end of 2012. The tax credit for incremental hydro (adding hydro power to existing dams), wave and tidal energy, geothermal, municipal solid waste, and bioenergy was only extended until the end of 2013.
Environmental organizations as well as governmental groups and the renewable energy industry are working to convince Congress to further extend these credits. Geothermal projects typically require between four and eight years to complete, according to the GEA. That means that many geothermal projects under development will not be completed by the current tax-credit expiration deadline, which will undermine future industry growth. They note that since 2005, the U.S. geothermal market has grown from 2,737 megawatts of installed baseload capacity in 2005 to 3,102 megawatts in 2010.
In order to advocate for this cause, GEA Executive Director Karl Gawel submitted a statement to the Select Revenue Measures and Oversight congressional subcommittees in fall 2011. It frames the challenges of developing geothermal energy in terms of other types of renewables. “We understand that a principal reason for providing solar projects the 2016 deadline was the long lead times expected for concentrated solar power projects,” according to Gawel. “We believe that geothermal projects, with considerably longer lead times than currently faced by solar projects, warrant a comparable time frame.”
Baseload geothermal provides reliability, Gawel said in his statement, as well as economic stimulation and job creation. “Geothermal resources in the U.S. remain largely untapped, because of the high risk of finding and proving geothermal resources. With continued incentives for investment in new power projects we will capitalize on new technologies which could make significant new geothermal energy production a reality in the U.S. and sustain U.S. leadership in the world geothermal market.”
In addition to federal incentives, the EIA reports that many states have renewable portfolio standards that require electricity providers to generate or acquire a percentage of generation from renewable sources. However, states have “escape clauses” in these standards if renewable generation exceeds a cost threshold. Some states have delayed compliance and others lack enforcement procedures. Some states have built Renewable Energy Certificates (or credits) into their Renewable Portfolio Standards. This allows electricity providers to sell Renewable Energy Certificates and use their proceeds for renewable projects. GEA reports that up to 3,959.7 megawatts of new geothermal power plant capacity is currently under development in the United States. Those states with projects currently under consideration or development include Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.
While capital costs, lead time, and geographic isolation are sometimes daunting issues, geothermal energy has many benefits. For example, geothermal plants are scalable — a small geothermal plant can be built to provide power for a small community, whereas a nuclear plant for that purpose with today’s designs would be overkill. The GEA says geothermal plants require one to eight acres of land per megawatt created, versus five to ten acres per megawatt for nuclear operations, and nineteen acres per megawatt for coal power plants. Geothermal isn’t a thirsty form of power requiring vast reservoirs to cool its apparatus. Plants use twenty liters of fresh water per megawatt-hour versus more than a thousand liters per megawatt-hour for nuclear, coal, or oil, according to the GEA. In terms of safety, geothermal advocates point out that we aren’t importing the earth’s heat from countries that are politically unstable and we aren’t held hostage by pricing consortiums. The plants are not likely to blow up or melt down. They don’t burn fuels that depend on removing chunks of mountain tops or digging up the ground beneath our feet.
Andrews, my initial plant contact, Garth Larsen, and I were finishing up our conversation in the conference room about geothermal’s advantages when we saw my husband’s vehicle approaching the electronically controlled gates. As we went outside to greet him and hear about his adventures, Andrews pointed out the landscaping work done by a plant employee to formally beautify the already lovely desert terrain. Although water at the plant isn’t potable, and so fresh water must be delivered in large plastic bottles, the supply there works just fine for the Russian sage and black-eyed Susan at the base of the transmission tower.
Professor Lindenbrock and company in Journey to the Center of the Earth were fascinated by the idea of a trip into the earth with little awareness of the danger. At least not on the part of the professor and the unflappable Hans — Axel the narrator was a nervous wreck. Most of us would not willingly climb around the tops of active volcanoes, even between eruptions, and the professor had no intention of doing so, either. That’s why he and the crew followed fictitious Arne Saknussemm’s path down the throat of Snaefells in Iceland, a volcano extinct for five hundred years. Only because of circumstances beyond their control did they exit through a “Strombolian” type of eruption involving intermittent bursts of expanding gas.
Just before that amazing deliverance, Verne’s professor speaks the sort of lines that drive the best of science fiction literature. His sentiment could be applied to today’s urgent question of energy use and conservation. “The situation is virtually hopeless, but there exists a possibility of salvation, and it is that possibility which I am examining. If we may die at any moment, we may also at any moment be saved. Let us then be prepared to seize upon the smallest advantage.”
Excerpted from Traveling the Power Line: From the Mojave Desert to the Bay of Fundy by Julianne Couch. Copyright © 2013 by The Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.