There is the potential for as much as 60 gigawatts (GW) of geothermal capacity in the United States by 2050, but several impediments would first have to be addressed, according to a new report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
Improvements in regulatory processes and technology advances would be key to facilitating the expansion of geothermal resources, both as a form of primary electricity generation and as a source of district heating, the report said.
In geothermal power’s favor are several “non-cost factors,” such as the ability of geothermal plants to operate 24 hours a day regardless of weather and without voltage swings, making them an appropriate baseload replacement for retiring fossil fuel plants and a complement for variable energy resources. Those advantages could become increasingly important as states adopt or move closer to mandates requiring low or no carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector, the report said.
The bulk of the 60 GW of geothermal capacity, which NREL references from the Department of Energy’s 2019 GeoVision 2019 study, would be the result of technology advances and cost reductions in the deployment of geothermal resources. The GeoVision study estimates that about 13 GW of the potential 60 GW could come from improvements in the regulatory process.
One example cited in the NREL report is the lack of risk mitigation schemes and federal and state incentives for geothermal district heating.
NREL also noted that geothermal power production is “likely hindered” by its least cost of energy (LCOE), which, although lower than coal and gas peaking plants, is higher than solar and wind power and combined-cycle gas-fired plants.
In recent years, the U.S. geothermal power sector has seen little capacity growth, NREL said. The sector went from 3,627 megawatts (MW) to 3,673 MW from 2015 to 2019. The 186 MW of new capacity that came online in the time frame were mostly expansions and repowerings of existing plants and was offset by the retirement of 11 plants with a combined capacity of 103 MW.
However, since 2019, nine new geothermal power purchase agreements have been signed in four states, including plans for the first two geothermal power plants to be built in California in a decade, NREL noted.
“The newest market report conveys that the geothermal industry is poised to make big leaps into enhanced geothermal systems and the heating and cooling sector,” Kelly Speakes-Backman, acting assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy at the Department of Energy, said in a statement. “These strides outline the potential for the widespread deployment of this important renewable resource.”
Speakes-Backman was a recent guest on the American Public Power Association’s Public Power Now podcast.