The Benefits of Geothermal Energy

While the benefits of geothermal energy would outweigh the initial investment over time, federal incentives meant to help taxpayers with environmental updates could expire before many projects are complete.

| January 27, 2014

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.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Traveling the Power Line.

Developing Power

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.

1/29/2014 10:14:09 AM

LENR will blow geothermal right out of the (hot) water.

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