Will Geothermal Solve California's Energy Crisis?

Energy producers and experts discuss geothermal and other renewable power sources at the National Geothermal Summit in Sacramento, Calif.
by | August 10, 2012

By Brian Heaton, Government Technology

Geothermal power can play a key role in expanding renewable energy sources in California and the United States, according to experts at the National Geothermal Summit.

The Wednesday, Aug. 8, summit brought together legislators, energy producers, researchers and geologists to discuss the future of geothermal energy -- sustainable thermal power generated and stored in the earth. They concluded that while solar and wind power are popular choices for alternative energy, geothermal has a number of untapped resources that, when discovered, should improve geothermal power's contribution to California's and the nation's energy grids.

California State Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, chair of the state’s Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee, felt that there is great potential to expand the power source's impact statewide despite the fact that geothermal energy production has been “flat” over the past 15 years.

“Solar may get a lot of the attention because it's glitzy, it's glamorous maybe, and I know politicians love to tout and cut ribbons on solar facilities, but geothermal is what we call 'renewable gold,'” Padilla said. “Because of its attributes, it's very attractive and should always play a role in our energy portfolio.”

Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez, D-Coachella, agreed and said that geothermal power has a strong future in California. He admitted, however, that regulatory hurdles are preventing geothermal energy from becoming more prominent in California's energy mix. Strides have been made with the California Public Utilities Commission to remove those barriers, Perez said, but he continues to work with stakeholders to further support the use and export of geothermal power.

In addition, despite the abundance of renewable energy resources in California, Perez was disappointed that the state continues to purchase a significant amount of energy from neighboring states and Mexico.

“The state of Nevada … has 31 renewable energy projects in the queue that total more than 5,500 megawatts that will be delivering energy to the state of California,” Perez said. “Those are lost jobs, investment and economic development opportunities for Californians.”

Carla Peterman, commissioner of the California Energy Commission, identified some of the other challenges facing geothermal energy's penetration into California. One is that that there are limited financial incentives available from public resources for geothermal developers to tap into and use. Mitigation of negative environmental impacts and the ability to deliver power are also of concern, she said.

Peterman believed workable solutions to those challenges need to be found in order to take advantage of California's geothermal resources and projects in the Imperial Valley, located in southeastern California near the Mexico border.

Despite those issues, Peterman said that geothermal remains a prominent part of the state's clean energy strategy. She noted that California has more than 40 geothermal power facilities with a generation capacity of 2,500 megawatts and more than 2,000 megawatts of capacity in various stages of development. One megawatt of electricity is enough power to light up to 1,000 average U.S. homes, according to the Electric Power Supply Association.

Looking Forward

John DiStasio, general manager and CEO of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), delivered the conference's keynote address. He said SMUD is using a diverse resource mix that includes geothermal power as an integral part of SMUD's ongoing efforts to optimize its energy portfolio.

SMUD signed an agreement with Gradient in northern Nevada for 87 megawatts of baseload renewable energy generation and expects production to begin in 2013. The utility is also looking at a prospective geothermal project in Colusa County, Calif.

“We see geothermal as kind of the ‘other white meat,’” DiStasio said. “It has all the great attributes of some of the other baseload resources, but it’s just not as well understood and awareness is not as high.”

Karen Edson, vice president of policy and client services for California ISO, which provides access to the bulk of the state’s wholesale energy transmission grid, said projections have shown that geothermal projects in California will be relatively flat in the years ahead.

The federal government is trying to change that through the funding of advanced geothermal technology R&D work, according to Doug Hollett, program manager of the U.S. Department of Energy's Geothermal Technologies Program. Uncle Sam is helping fund 43 projects related to technology advancements in geothermal energy production in California to the tune of more than $100 million.

Hollett likened the technical breakthroughs being worked on in geothermal expansion to the Mars Curiosity rover project. He said that people were initially skeptical of the forward-thinking plans put forward by engineers to land a car-sized probe on Mars. But it worked. By the same token, he expected that in time, the advancements to make geothermal energy production a more viable power source would succeed as well.

“It creates value at the end of the day,” Hollett said regarding the geothermal R&D work.

“Whether it’s unique ways of drilling wells, whether it’s imaging … these are all keys,” he added.

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