Potential of geothermal power & What will it take?

Revealing the potential of geothermal power mainly depends on geography. Geothermal power is extremely constrained. In the U.S. there are only about five states where there is practical hot rock geothermal generation, and it is too expensive to interest investors these days. However, Iceland seems to have the world’s largest untapped geothermal potential. But Iceland gets most of its power from hydropower, and there has to be an economic reason for that.

potential of geothermal power

The global interest in geothermal began to falter after 2000, long before wind and solar came to the front. I don’t know how much natural gas played a role in undercutting geothermal, but I’m firmly convinced that all energy resources must have economic justification. Special interests can tweak the trends, but they cannot alter them unless the economics work.

In the U.S. natural gas edged out coal and nuclear by a combination of increased efficiency of power plants, and reduced cost due to fracking. Most fracking produces both oil and gas from the same wells, and this has tended to overproduce gas as oil is sought. This in turn caused very low natural gas prices for the last decade. Even now, this is true, in the U.S.

Wind and solar by contrast have not just edged out natural gas. They have clobbered it. Wind and solar projects are routinely displacing power that costs two or more times as much as the new wind and solar projects. This has pretty much destroyed any serious interest in expanding all the marginal resources, such as biomass generation, hydropower, geothermal, solar thermal, wood to energy and a variety of fossil fuels that most of us don’t think about most of the time.

At one time I was told that the problem with geothermal is that it takes three holes drilled to produce one that hits the right hot rock. But it also seems that existing geothermal facilities are not all that cheap. This is also another drawback for unleashing the potential of geothermal power.

I’m pretty empirical in how I follow energy. If someone starts investing in new geothermal I’ll follow it. But I don’t know why it seems to be cheaper in Iceland than in other places. I’d guess, but I don’t think anyone needs to know what I guess.

It would be nice if we had another clean energy technology to add to wind and solar, especially one which reputedly operates around the clock and could be useful in meeting demand when wind and solar falter. But storage is already cheap enough to allow us to have all our energy needs met with wind and solar for less money than we pay today, at least on a per KWh basis.

My pragmatic hope is that existing hydropower, biomass and geothermal production will continue to operate until we have ended fossil fuels. At that point, if wind and solar and storage are cheaper, so be it. Right now it looks like we are going that way. There may be a few places where geothermal hangs on for longer. But I don’t see any reason to look forward to an unleashing.

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