Geothermal Gets Big Boost from DOE via ARRA

Geothermal symbol for RfA NRDC Flash Map

Perhaps befitting its name by remaining "beneath the radar" from clean energy development coverage by the press, geothermal energy got a major boost of support by the Department of Energy (DOE) in a major announcement last week by Secretary Chu opening up $338 million in ARRA funding in a competitive solicitation that will fund 123 projects in 29 states. 

The DOE announcement summarized the funding across six categories:

  • Innovative Exploration and Drilling Projects (up to $98.1 million):  Twenty-four projects have been selected focusing on the development of new geothermal fields using innovative sensing, exploration, and well-drilling technologies.
  • Coproduced, Geopressured, and Low Temperature Projects (up to $20.7 million): Eleven projects have been selected for the development of new low-temperature geothermal fields, a vast but currently untapped set of geothermal resources.  This includes geothermal heat found in the hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells around the U.S., where up to ten barrels of hot water are produced for every barrel of oil.
  • Enhanced Geothermal Systems Demonstrations (up to $51.4 million): Three projects have been selected for the exploration, drilling and development of enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) to validate power production from deep hot rock resources using innovative technologies and approaches.
  • Enhanced Geothermal Systems Components Research and Development / Analysis (up to $81.5 million): Forty-five projects have been selected to focus on research and development of new technologies to find and drill into deep hot rock formations, stimulate enhanced geothermal reservoirs, and convert the heat to power.
  • Geothermal Data Development, Collection and Maintenance (up to $24.6 million): Three projects have been selected for the population of a comprehensive nationwide geothermal resource database to help identify and assess new fields.
  • Ground Source Heat Pump Demonstrations (up to $61.9 million):  Thirty-seven projects have been selected to demonstrate the deployment of ground source heat pumps for heating and cooling of a variety of buildings for a variety of customer types, including academic institutions, local governments and commercial buildings.

This announcement came on the heels of the DOE finalizing The Geothermal Technologies Program (GTP) Multi-Year Research, Development and Demonstration (MYRDD) Plan, which describes the planned research, development and demonstration (RD&D) activities for geothermal technologies through 2015, with additional information on potential program activities through 2025 for the GTP.

Geothermal Primer

Geothermal is a term that captures three general types of technologies that vary significantly in scale and output.  We explain this resource and technologies used to capture it on our Renewables for America website.

Geothermal Tomorrow

Recent studies indicate that an even larger potential of geothermal energy lies a little further down in the earth's crust (3-10 km down) and is available throughout many parts of the U.S.  Although it will require developing new technologies for drilling and heat transfer, "enhanced" geothermal systems (EGS) has the potential to deliver upwards of 10 percent of today's U.S. electricity supply.

Geothermal and Localized Earthquake Risk

Among some of the environmental disruptions that can occur resulting from drilling, constructing and operating utility-scale geothermal, the biggest problem appears to be around localized earthquake risk that results from drilling into bedrock containing superheated water & steam.  This is an issue we will continue to monitor closely.  The New York Times Energy and Environment press has covered this issue recently and provides a summary of recent projects reported on here.

Our Next Steps

While geothermal energy may not grab clean energy headlines, it is an important renewable energy resource that we think should be further developed with continued emphasis studying the impacts on localized earthquake risks.  Stay tuned as we prepare to include more information for you on geothermal resource potential on our Renewables for America Flash map in the coming weeks.