The renewable energy source Democrats hope will explode

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Clean energy advocates who have turned the wind and the sun into an energy boom hope to do the same with a resource that lies thousands of feet underground: the Earth’s own heat.

Geothermal energy has been used for decades to run power plants. But now, with the potential infusion of billions of federal dollars, it could be on the cusp of technological breakthroughs that will allow it to grow from a tiny part of the energy market to a global force that helps fight the climate change.

Congressional supporters included geothermal power in the bipartisan infrastructure package passed last fall that earmarked $84 million for demonstration projects. And supporters say the hundreds of billions of dollars in tax incentives and research funding in the Build Back Better Act could help propel it into the mainstream.

“If we are focused on creating good paying jobs, growing the economy and solving the climate crisis, this is a perfect example of why we need this type of tax credit. for geothermal energy, which is an advantage for clean energy, without a doubt. but across the country,” Senator Catherine Cortez Masto told POLITICO.

Nevada’s state of Cortez Masto is home to some of the best geothermal resources in the country. The same goes for West Virginia, whose Senator Joe Manchin derailed the BBB in December over concerns about the size and inflationary impact of the $1.7 trillion bill. Still, Manchin is a proponent of technology, much like Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii.

Negotiations on the BBB bill have stalled for now as Congress tackles voting rights legislation, and it’s unclear whether all energy provisions will remain intact as the reconciliation package is renegotiated. .

Climate advocates and lawmakers estimate that the $320 billion in tax incentives promoting renewable energy like geothermal will remain virtually unchanged. But one aspect that is under scrutiny is a measure that would allow developers of geothermal and other clean energy projects to receive a direct payment as part of the incentives rather than a tax credit. .

Most renewable energy developers have little tax to pay due to their narrow profit margins, so they sell their tax credits to financial institutions – a process that can significantly reduce the benefits they derive from conservation measures. revival of the government. Manchin questioned the element of direct compensation, according to several officials from advocacy groups who follow the negotiations.

While the project’s tax credits and demonstration money have been welcomed by the geothermal industry, Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-California) told POLITICO he’s worried the BBB might cross the line. ‘arrival.

“We support geothermal energy as one of the good alternatives when it comes to achieving a green or renewable portfolio,” said LaMalfa, whose Northern California district is a hotspot for geothermal energy. . “To be contained in a bill like this that seems doomed is a shame. I would rather see it in a separate bill, in a separate energy bill, which would be more positive than one of this gigantic size that is running into big problems on the Senate side.

An untapped resource

The share of geothermal energy in the American energy mix has been limited in part because of the difficulty of passing the hot water that is underground through the rocks. In a classic geothermal system, this water, in the form of steam, is brought in via a drilled well and used to drive a turbine that drives a generator that creates electricity, as in a natural gas or coal-fired power plant. To feed the system, the hot fluids used are returned underground to the heat exchange system via a reinjection well.

According to the Energy Information Administration, the initial cost of a geothermal energy field and power plant is about $2,500 per kilowatt, far more expensive than solar and wind energy, which have benefited from policies favorable federal and state and financial incentives that have depressed production. costs. In 2019, the average cost of onshore wind turbines was $1,391 per kilowatt, while solar energy averaged $1,796 per kilowatt.

Geothermal energy accounted for just 2% of total energy consumption in 2020, according to the EIA, but experts say it has the ability to capture a bigger slice of the pie.

“If geothermal became affordable, then there would be huge potential for it to be adopted for power generation,” said Daniel Shawhan, a member of Resources for the Future, a nonprofit group that conducts research. on clean energy. “It could really supply a lot of the world’s energy. And in particular, it could be the missing piece at an affordable price. [and] make at low cost [a] a net-zero emissions economy,” he added.

Researchers are working to better identify areas where rocks have the permeability best suited to geothermal development. So far, this is mostly limited to hotspots in states such as California and Nevada., which together represent 95% of national production.

David Bobzien, director of the Nevada Governor’s Office of Energy, said further advances in remote sensing with mapping and modeling should reduce the high costs of exploration to find these hotspots.

“It’s an expensive proposition every time you drill a well, and so if you can refine your modeling as to where you think the resources might be, that cuts the cost pretty quickly,” Bobzien said..

But a newer technology, called enhanced geothermal systems, or EGS, only needs a heat source and uses hydraulic fracturing, or fracturing — the same technology used by the oil and gas industries — to increase the permeability of the rock.

Nevada Minerals Division Administrator Mike Visher said EGS could increase drilling opportunities in areas that are not geothermal hotspots and could be found closer to corridors where power lines operate, greatly reducing the cost of moving electricity.

“If you could create these artificial plumbing systems, it would open up [the] possibility of locating these geothermal plants close to existing electrical infrastructure,” Visher said.

Shawhan said the Build Back Better Act could help close some of the gaps not covered by the incentives included in the Energy Act 2020 and the Infrastructure Bill enacted in November, he added. BBB includes more than $1.1 billion in renewable energy funding for research development and demonstration through 2026 and Shawhan expects at least $100 million to be earmarked for geothermal.

An investment tax credit of up to 30% would also be expanded under the BBB Reconciliation Bill, incentivizing industry to make its own investment in production and research provided it meets applicable wage and apprenticeship requirements.

John Rogers, senior energy analyst at the non-profit group Union of Concerned Scientists, said the potential tax credits featured in BBB send a good long-term signal to the geothermal industry and potential innovators. , noting that wind and solar power have been able to grow into the mainstream because of this kind of legislative investment.

Others note that the bill’s provisions will level the playing field with other renewables and make geothermal more competitive, allowing new startups, investments, projects and resources to bring them online.

“Geothermal energy can compete on price with these renewables,” said Will Pettitt, executive director of the trade association Geothermal Rising. “The reconciliation bill introducing these tax credits will simply help stimulate investment; to be able to move the industry forward.

rocky trail

There are reservations about the ability of geothermal energy to handle larger-scale energy demand.

Since geothermal energy is essentially a heat exchanger, it thrives best in colder temperatures as more steam is generated for its turbines, which poses problems during the summer months when electricity consumption is at its maximum.

And there are other downsides to geothermal energy, depending on the type of generating system used. While greenhouse gases and other toxic gases remain unexposed to the atmosphere in a closed-loop system in which heat is exchanged in an underground system of pipes, they can be released in open-loop systems that use a well or surface water body. Sulfur dioxide is one of the gases emitted, which can contribute to heart and lung disease and damage ecosystems, although far from the levels emitted by coal-fired power plants – the country’s biggest emitter of sulfur dioxide. Typically, however, geothermal power plants emit very low levels of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide.

Environmental impacts include increased seismic activity. Both conventional and improved geothermal systems cause or induce small earthquakes through steam withdrawal, fluid injections, and rock fracturing. While those affected are generally limited to operators on the ground and nearby residents, there is also evidence that projects can trigger much more devastating earthquakes, such as the 2017 disaster in South Korea that injured dozens. and displaced thousands of residents.

Among existing U.S. projects, the Geysers conventional geothermal field in California has 18 power plants, the largest complex in the world, which combine to produce 835 megawatts of electricity, according to the Department of the Interior. Several counties that host the complex are pushing to accelerate geothermal development.

A pilot project underway is at Cornell University, which is planning a drilling observatory to explore powering its Ithaca campus with deep geothermal heat. The test hole will be drilled about two miles deep, or 10,000 feet, where researchers estimate the rocks will be hot enough for production. This could be an indicator of the depth needed to reach geothermal heat sources in the northeast and other colder, non-hotspot climates.

Perhaps the strongest argument for greater adoption of geothermal systems is that power plants can generate power 24 hours a day because heat from the earth’s core is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, unlike its wind and solar companions.

“So the fact that geothermal is there all the time, I think, is going to get people more and more interested. I love wind power. I love solar power. And I think they’re really important…but I think it’s also really interesting to have…a renewable energy source that’s just always there,” Rogers said.

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