Geothermal’s Promise


Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s 2006 report, “The Future of Geothermal Energy,” sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, concluded that geothermal energy, an essentially unlimited resource that utilizes the heat beneath the Earth’s surface, had the potential to supply a substantial portion of future U.S. electricity needs at competitive prices and with minimal environmental impact.

The full extent to which geothermal can be developed as a large-scale solution to energy security and combating climate change came to light last week when Southern Methodist University (SMU)’s Geothermal Lab presented the most data-rich map of U.S. geothermal resources to date.

SMU’s three-year project, funded by Google, estimates that the continental U.S. now has the potential to exceed 2,980,295 megawatts, more than 10 times the current capacity of coal power plants, using Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) and other advanced geothermal technologies.

“EGS is a big challenge, but with the potential to power the world many times over, it demands our immediate attention,” Google said in a statement on their philanthropy site,

Contrary to conventional U.S. geothermal production, which has been largely restricted to geographically unique and tectonically active locations in the western third of the country, EGS and other advanced geothermal technologies, along with new drilling methods, will be capable of supporting reliable, large-scale commercial energy production in geologic conditions previously considered unsuitable for geothermal. This includes the eastern two-thirds of the U.S., where SMU researchers located newfound thermal data points that were even hotter than some in the western portion of the country. West Virginia, for example, sits atop several hot patches of Earth, some as warm as 200˚C, with enough geothermal production potential to rival their existing (primarily coal-based) power supply.

“Both Google and the SMU researchers are fundamentally changing the way we look at how we can use the heat of the Earth to meet our energy needs, and by doing so are making significant contributions to enhancing our national security and environmental quality,” said Karl Gawell, executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association.