Why earth’s crust may be a geothermal recipe for clean energy

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Some people roll their eyes when I say I’m interested in geothermal heat but the fact is the earth absorbs 50% of the sun’s energy. Therefore maybe the real joke is the fact we are not moving more quickly enough to gain better energy efficiency through geothermal heat pumps. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says geothermal heat pumps are the most efficient, clean and cost effective for temperature control. So why are we not tapping this resource?

Geothermal power can help customers cut heating, air conditioning and hot water bills. Plus a 30% federal tax credit is in place for those who “install” versus “produce” geothermal heat systems by the end of 2013. So in my view the industry is not currently set up for long-term success since there is a lack of policy regarding the future of geothermal power.

I’d likely be more enthusiastic if the tax credit was extended to entice more investment and usage which could make geothermal power a more competitive alternative energy source. Cost is another issue at the moment, especially for residential usage since geothermal systems tend to run higher up-front installation costs than traditional HVAC systems.

I’m interested to see the development of enhanced geothermal systems (EGS), a technology similar to fracking natural gas wells in that it requires injecting water into rock. My true concerns regarding geothermal power come from the similarity between geothermal and the fracking of gas. Therefore I’d like to see more studies into how the use of geothermal power may or may not result in an increased number of earthquakes or even upgrade the risk for contamination to the water supply. If these issues can concretely be dealt with or proven to be overblown, geothermal heat could have a place among the country’s future energy mix.

Of course, if EGS technology could be further advanced and flowback water can be recycled rather than injected back into the ground, geothermal power may have a chance to compete on price and remove uncertainties which have plagued sentiment toward this resource. Oddly enough, gas fracking has gone mainstream sprinting to the finish line yet geothermal power has been rather slow out of the gate. Outside of cost and uncertainty, this also has to due with the lack of accuracy to pinpoint geothermal hot-springs below ground.

If we see greater efficiencies with EGS, I actually believe we will see increased geographic use of geothermal heat in the whole country rather than primarily in the western U.S. states which have bigger geothermal resources according to the DOE. Thus EGS could have global implications, especially for geothermal based cogeneration plants that can provide heat and electricity.

Bear mind geothermal has been used successfully in California, Nevada, Oregon and Utah and in countries such as Sweden, Iceland and, Greenland which have hotter thermal pool areas. Geothermal has even been famously used in the Texas home of former President George W. Bush. Plus, geothermal power found its way to The Statue of Liberty in 2010. As Frank Sinatra famously sang, “Start spreading the news…”

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John Licata delivers thought provoking analyses on the realities of climate change, filling a much needed void in the discussion and applicable across many disciplines.
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