Google Map Reveals Massive Geothermal Potential Nationwide, “Effectively an Unlimited Supply” Says Chu

You’re looking at a whole lot of heat.

Southern Methodist University’s Geothermal Laboratory recently released a map that proves once again how much potential energy is locked beneath America. SMU’s resource map, which took years to develop with funding from, shows that there are enough technically recoverable resources throughout the U.S. to equal 10 times the amount of coal capacity in place today.

Other maps have shown similar data. Last year, SMU issued a map (also funded by Google) that showed massive geothermal potential under West Virginia, an area not typically seen as suitable for the technology. In 2007, MIT Researcher Jeff Tester analyzed deep “hot rock” resources, showing that the U.S has 100 GW of potential for Enhanced Geothermal Systems [EGS] — an emerging type of plant design in which a developer creates an artificial well by pumping water through deep rocks, rather than using direct steam from hot water reservoirs closer to the surface.

So big deal, right? Another map shows we have tons of resources. Why is this so different from the others?

Well, geothermal exploration can be a very risky business. It’s not uncommon for a developer to spend 3/5ths of capital on the exploration and drilling phase of a project. And if the resources aren’t there, that’s millions of dollars down the…bore hole.

This map and corresponding study gives the geothermal industry another great tool for evaluating resources, particularly in areas on the East Coast where developers haven’t ventured. SMU provides an explanation (and a good video of EGS starring Energy Secretary Steven Chu):

In this newest SMU estimate of resource potential, researchers used additional temperature data and in-depth geological analysis for the resulting heat flow maps to create the updated temperature-at-depth maps from 3.5 kilometers to 9.5 kilometers (11,500 to 31,000 feet).

This update revealed that some conditions in the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. are actually hotter than some areas in the western portion of the country, an area long-recognized for heat-producing tectonic activity. In determining the potential for geothermal production, the new SMU study considers the practical considerations of drilling, and limits the analysis to the heat available in the top 6.5 km (21,500 ft.) of crust for predicting megawatts of available power.

This approach incorporates a newly proposed international standard for estimating geothermal resource potential that considers added practical limitations of development, such as the inaccessibility of large urban areas and national parks. Known as the ‘technical potential’ value, it assumes producers tap only 14 percent of the ‘theoretical potential’ of stored geothermal heat in the U.S., using currently available technology.

In other words, this assessment, which shows we have enough recoverable resources to overtake our coal capacity ten times over, is pretty realistic. funded this detailed piece of research as part of its suite of strategic investments in geothermal R&D and project deployment. But even with these resources and the high-profile backing from companies like Google, the pace of development in the geothermal industry will still be moderate.

That’s because developers in the sector are competing with oil and gas companies for drilling rigs and workers. Securing capital for projects from the still-tight financial markets has also been tough for companies. And in next-generation EGS, drilling technologies and power plant designs are still in pre-commercial phase. This isn’t an industry that can deploy projects very rapidly.

Even with some constraints, it’s clear that the Americans are blessed with an enormous amount of technically-exploitable resources under our feet. And no, it’s not coal, oil or natural gas.

Here’s a good video of Enhanced Geothermal Systems (and it beats the heck out of gas fracking):

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13 Responses to Google Map Reveals Massive Geothermal Potential Nationwide, “Effectively an Unlimited Supply” Says Chu

  1. BillD says:

    My home has geothermal. It’s nice to have low heating and cools costs and to get a small property tax reduction on the side.

  2. Lou Grinzo says:

    I wish we could do something to end geothermal’s status as the forgotten stepchild of energy. It’s a seriously cool technology, one that we should be heavily subsidizing.

    A few years ago I attended a meeting of a local green organization in the basement of a huge, old house in Rochester (NY). Someone who had been there before mentioned that the house had geothermal heating, so of course the energy geeks took a peak. What we saw looked like a normal, albeit undersized, furnace. The only thing unusual was a pipe about 2 inches in diameter that came out of the furnace and went into the ground. (I assume there was also a second pipe, or maybe two smaller pipes inside the one we saw.) It was clean, quiet, and it kept a house that would dwarf the average McMansion warm even in our sometimes challenging winters up here.

    On a larger scale — used for electricity generation or municipal steam heat, it could be a phenomenal energy source. Unless the Republicans were told by their owners (Koch, et al.) to tag it as The Devil’s Heat, that is…

  3. fj says:

    seems absolutely absurd that we have any dependency on fossil fuels whatsoever

  4. Leif says:

    I made an almost free “geothermal” assist for my Ductless Heat Pump for my home. I was able to build a “greenhouse” pre-heater for the intake for the heat pump. During a sunny day the temperature inside can be 15F to 30F warmer than ambient at the heat pump intake and at night I use the residual. This morning it is 32F out side yet my intake air is still 36F. I have a bunch of 4 gallon plastic cat litter jugs filled with water to increase the thermal mass. The whole was made with free recycled stuff. If I had to use AC, not a problem in my NW diggings, I would turn the system around, shading the interior during the day and storing the night time cool. Perhaps even incorporate a water mister, like you see at a grocery veggy stand, to cool the intake air even more.

    Another technology that might be useful is the ability to “push pipe” that you see being used. I recently watched a 4″ feed line for a cell tower that was pushed over 300 feet beneath a cement parking lot and fish plant. Around obstacles and all. Way cool. How about a grid work beneath a parking lot with a single trench on the far side of a parking lot for connecting the ends to make a closed loop? Beneath a highway for neighborhood heating and cooling?

  5. Mike Roddy says:

    Thanks, Stephen, and I agree with Lou that this technology gets overlooked.

    The biggest challenge appears to be that geothermal plants are small and dispersed, not necessarily close to transmission. The Mojave Desert east of Palm Springs has a few of these small plants, typically around 10-60 MGW, as I recall. One nice feature is that it’s renewable in situ- unlike a gas seam, the heat never runs out.

    At this small scale the electricity is still cheap, and doesn’t get much in the way of subsidies, either.

    Maybe the reason behind geothermal’s lack of subsidies is that the gas companies fear its competitiveness. The solution might be to charge gas and coal for even half of their externalities. Then it would be “game over” for all dangerous fuel solutions, including oil, gas, coal, and nuclear.

  6. This looks like a bad idea says:

    I’m not ok with this. Especially when the guys “we can bank on it”. How is this different from Fracking? I know you’re not using natural gas and oil, but you’re damaging the earth in ways that you cannot see it! While increasing productivity and decreasing costs is appealing, it’s super destructive. Not to mention the effects of how extracting that energy from the core is going to affect the planet.

  7. Geothermal can help immediately. One local developer I know just runs his heat exchange coils for the house’s heat pumps right through the bed rock. The result: the heat pump no longer has to switch over to conventional heating during extremely cold weather. (Heat pumps struggle with air temps under around 40F and the ground temperature several feet down is always above 40F.)

  8. David B. Benson says:

    Some confuse ground heat pumps with geothermal (since salespeople use the latter term for the former); tain’t at all the same.

    Actual geothermal uses hot rock far below the surface. The main problem is the risk of ending up with a bunch of expen$ive bore holes but no (or inadequate) supply of hot water. The most recent project I happen to know about went bankrupt and the receivers have recouped a bit by supplying a mere 7 MW.

    Altogether, only suitable for risk-seeking investors (whom seem to be in short supply these days).

  9. Question says:

    @”this looks like a bad idea”

    Our global average power demand is about 15 TW or about 500 million trillion joules/year. The heat content of the Earth is somewhere on the order of 100,000 trillion trillion joules. And more heat is generated in the interior of the Earth at a rate of about 20-30 TW (heat flow on teh surface is slightly higher since stored heat is still being released). So even extracting ALL of our energy from geothermal globally we still won’t have an effect on the Earth’s core.

    I don’t know the local effects, but as far as the Earth’s core is concerned geothermal energy is not important.

  10. Theodore says:

    We need a new word. Any article on commercial geothermally generated electric power is invariably littered with comments about home heating systems. These are two different topics. One or the other needs to be renamed so as to avoid confusion.

  11. quokka says:

    The video terms the Geodynamics project in the Cooper Basin of South Australia as “commercial”. This is a bit of a stretch as GDY is still to make a financial decision on the construction of a 25 MW “commercial scale” demonstration plant. Progress has been slow and targets have slipped. 2014 looks like the earliest a 25 MW plant may be operational if it does happen at all.

    As far as I am aware, this is the most advanced EGS project in the world. The time frame for EGS to play even a bit part looks to be in the 2020s at best and nobody really knows how effective it may be. It would be folly to place high expectations on EGS before plants at least in the hundreds of MWs capacity range have been built and successfully operated.

    Worthy of R&D – yes. Significant for emissions reductions – not yet and time frame is highly uncertain as is the outcome.

  12. Bill Woods says:

    But 20-30 TW is an average of only 40-60 kW/km^2. And even if you start with a 300°C heat source, the efficiency of turning it into useful work is only about 1/3.