Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Untapped Potential: Geothermal Energy in Oregon

Credit: F. C. Whitmore (U.S. Geological Survey) and NREL
By Joni Sliger, Policy Extern

Oregon ranks third in the nation in geothermal energy potential. While the state ranks fourth in the nation on pursuing energy efficiency (which is delightful but surprising given Oregon had the eleventh lowest electricity rates in 2015), it has yet to develop its geothermal potential. Unfortunately, it’s not alone.

Geothermal power is chronically underdeveloped. Globally, installed capacity is only about 12.8 gigawatts (GW), or roughly a mere 6.5% of a potential 200 GW. Surprisingly, the United States leads the international market, boasting a grand total of 3.5 GW installed capacity, or roughly 21% of its 16.5 GW potential. (For perspective, the U.S. Geological Survey equates U.S. potential as “equivalent to 16 large nuclear power plants or dozens of coal fired power plants”). While Oregon has the potential to support around 2,200 MW of geothermal generating capacity, its installed capacity is a mere 35 MW. These numbers are all estimates, of course; determining the true potential requires site analyses and may vary with technology.

Geothermal has much to offer. Unlike variable renewable energy sources like wind or solar, geothermal is a reliable energy source. Geothermal plants can provide baseload and ancillary power, giving it the potential to replace baseload fossil-fuel-fired plants. The Geothermal Energy Association’s Executive Director recently pushed geothermal as “the glue that will help hold the clean power grid together.”

Geothermal energy is not without its problems. Like other renewable sources, it requires high upfront investments. A 2013 news report noted Oregon’s geothermal resources can be located far from transmission lines and can face environmental opposition. Geothermal energy is low in emissions, but it can present environmental risks. For example, the Renewable Northwest Project notes proper siting is critical to minimize the risk of groundwater contamination. (The Union of Concerned Scientists also discusses this concern and notes no geothermal plant has caused contamination in the U.S.)

However, geothermal offers a host of benefits worth considering, too. In addition to being naturally low in emissions, geothermal projects rely a renewable resource—heat from the earth’s core. Additionally, the Renewable Northwest Project reports that geothermal projects provide local jobs and support local economies and tax bases. The Geothermal Energy Association proclaims geothermal has benefits over other renewables, because it uses less land than wind or solar (404 square miles versus 1335 or 3237, respectively) and it emits fewer lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than solar (by a factor of four). (Lifecycle emissions include both direct and indirect emissions; solar power does not directly produce greenhouse gases, but constructing the photovoltaic panels creates indirect emissions).

Geothermal provides a renewable, local power for Oregon. It deserves more attention from utilities and investors. In the meantime, individuals can take matters into their own hands. The Energy Trust of Oregon can help private landowners take advantage of geothermal energy, by providing financial incentives for small geothermal projects (less than 20 MW nameplate capacity) that can connect to PGE or Pacific Power.

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