When you think of renewable energy, what’s the first to come to mind? I bet solar followed by wind. This phrase has been beaten into our heads by the media. Rarely, if ever, is geothermal appended to this list. Why?
I think that the geothermal lobby is doing a terrible job. Sure, they’ve got an uphill battle at this point with solar and wind so well branded that they’re almost as well-known and ubiquitous as Coca-Cola. But wait a second, what about us, the public? We’re part of the problem too. Collectively we wield enormous power. But most of us are so busy that we can’t be bothered to dig into anything too deeply. But, this is our future we’re talking about. Energy is the root of all economies. Without it, we can’t make anything.
My point is that geothermal deserves, at the very least, to be talked about any time renewable energy is discussed. If anything, it has many advantages over both solar and wind. First, of the three renewables, geothermal is the only one that produces base load power (basically it’s always on). The sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. Additionally, both solar and wind take up lots of land.
Here are the facts:
The US is currently the leading producer of electricity from geothermal energy. Surprised? In 2010, geothermal electricity production was 3,086 MW from 77 power plants (or just over 3 Gigawatts). Just to put that into perspective the US installed solar energy capacity is approximately 1.7 Gigawatts (a Gigawatt = 1000 Megawatts). The US installed wind power capacity is approximately 35 GW. Yes, wind has more total installed capacity then the other two combined. That’s fine. But quietly, geothermal is a solid producer of clean, renewable energy.
Worldwide, wind is still has the largest installed capacity with approximately 200 GW, followed by solar (~23 GW) and then geothermal (~10.7 GW). The reason this is so is because geothermal is not commercially available in as many locations as solar and wind.
If you’re keeping score, you may be leaning towards wind power as your new favorite. But, hold on, there’s more to it than just installed capacity. All three are clean, but not all cost the same per MW of electricity produced. The following information was provided by the US Department of Energy’s Annual Energy Outlook 2010. These are figures from their levelized energy cost diagram. This means when all expenses are take into account, how much does each energy source cost/MW (or $/MW hour). Here are the numbers from most expensive to least:
>Solar Photovoltaic – 396.1
>Solar Thermal – 256.6
>Wind Offshore – 191.1
>Wind – 149.3
>Geothermal – 119.9
So, you can see that of these types of renewable energies, geothermal is the cheapest. Of course, there are other considerations. I realize that there are lots of financial and political details that go into any energy development. Geothermal development takes a long time and this can scare off would be investors and politicians.
Renewable energy development risks are mitigated by incentives from the government. Currently, Federal tax credits favor wind and solar. They get a 30% tax credit and geothermal gets 10%. In the end, investors pony up money for renewable energy projects to make money. Not having equal grants and tax credits creates an obvious disincentive to business people.
We need all three. That’s the reality. The carbon-based fuel era is winding down, and even if it weren’t we would still have to consider the environment. Don’t be naive and think that politicians are aware of everything or always have our best interest at heart. They’re heavily influenced by a desire to stay in office (remember geothermal takes a long time to develop) and by outside pressure. That means lobbyists and public opinion. So, I say let’s get some better geothermal lobbyists. We, the public, also need to be better informed, we can’t afford to be ignorant about our energy future.