ABOUT THIS SERIES: Students from The University of Montana School of Journalism, with the help of American Public Media’s Public Insight Network, reported and wrote stories for New West on the energy economy of the Rocky Mountain region. The project originated as part of the Green Thread initiative at UM.Although still a small fraction of the renewable energy market, geothermal is one of the fastest growing, fueled by technological improvements and its ability to deliver a steady flow of energy unlike wind and solar.
Since 2008, the number of geothermal projects online or under development has grown more than 200 percent, jumping from 83 to some 170. The epicenter of much of that development is in the Rocky Mountain West and California, according to Bill Vandermeer, U.S. Department of Energy project engineer.
According to the Geothermal Energy Association, more than 6 million households and businesses in the United States run on geothermal energy. Half of those are directly connected to a geothermal power plant, while the rest rely on home heating pumps.
Still, this represents only a small fraction of energy used in the United States. According to the Department of Energy, geothermal accounts for less than 1 percent of the country’s power generation.
Despite its relatively small part of the overall energy market, several regional firms are hoping to cash in on renewed interest.
Boise-based U.S. Geothermal Inc., as one example, landed a federal loan in April from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a geothermal power project at Neal Hot Springs in eastern Oregon.
Currently, nine states produce geothermal energy power and 15 states are working on developing plants.
The West’s unique geography has made it the most advance when it comes to harnessing this energy as a heating source. Here, the geothermal temperatures tend to be closer to the surface of the earth, as seen by the number of hot springs and geysers in the region.
However, Vandermeer said technological innovation is helping geothermal energy development move eastward.
“The temperature is usually above 350 degrees Fahrenheit [for geothermal energy production to happen] but needs to be pushed down to 200 degrees Fahrenheit which will allow it to now move to the Eastern states,” he said, adding West Virginia and Maine are considering new projects. There is also research in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi.
Geothermal’s also expanding its role internationally. According to the United States Geothermal Inc., 24 countries use geothermal to produce electricity and 70 countries use geothermal heating. They also said that some of the top countries in geothermal energy development are the United States, the Philippines and Mexico.
In just the last year, the United States has seen a 12 percent increase in the overall number of geothermal projects under development and supporter hope that as more people learn about the benefits, it will only grow.
“It can be a more widely used source of energy, but I am not sure the public knows of the benefits of using it,” said Greg Mines from Idaho National Laboratory.
Advocates argue that geothermal addresses one of the problems that have plagued other renewable sources, namely consistency.
“Solar and wind energy are great, but geothermal can go 24 hours a day. With solar or wind you need the sun out or the wind blowing and at times coal of generators but geothermal energy is 100 percent on a continuous basis,” Vandermeer said.
The sudden growth of geothermal can be traced to the recent recession. In 2009, when the government enacted the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the $787 billion stimulus bill provided a large investment in renewable projects. The bill included a provision that gave homeowners a 30-percent tax credit for installing a solar energy system, small wind system, geothermal heat pumps or residential fuel cell and micro-turbine systems.
“There is a lot more development primarily due to the incentives through tax credit,” Mines said.
Although, much of the development of personal geothermal systems are tied to the federal tax-credit program, Vandermeer believes geothermal industry has turned a major corner.
“I think geothermal is on the front burner now,” he said.
Also in This Series: With Heavy Government Help, Solar Continues Expansion in the West