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Hot rocks are a rockin’ hot climate solution

While wind and solar get the media attention of a sexy starlet, good old geothermal power is treated like an aging character actor.

But geothermal energy is, in fact, sizzling hot these days. Big-time investors from Warren Buffet to Goldman Sachs to Morgan Stanley to Google have begun investing:

In 2007, private equity firms invested more than $400 million in geothermal energy, which is derived from hot water under the Earth’s surface and can be used for space heating or generating electricity

Why the interest in a form of energy that President Bush repeatedly tried to zero out of the Department of Energy Budget? One reason is the soaring cost of conventional power, like coal and nuclear. Another is the growing awareness of just how much is zero-carbon electricity will need in coming decades.

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But perhaps most important for this reemerging technology, in the 2005 energy bill, Congress finally extended the renewable energy tax credit to geothermal “which at 2 cents per kilowatt hour for the first ten years, can account for a third of the cost of a project” — and which will expire in December unless Congress gets its act together (see here)!

The U.S. currently has 3 gigaWatts (3000 megaWatts) of geothermal, one third of the world’s capacity, generating $1.8 billion electricity sales. What is the ultimate potential?

The US Geological Survey estimates the US could generate 150,000 megawatts.

A major 2007 study by MIT on Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) found that it could be a provider of substantial baseload (24/7) power:

The panel thinks that with a combined public/private investment of about $800 million to $1 billion over a 15-year period, EGS technology could be deployed commercially on a timescale that would produce more than 100,000 MWe or 100 GWe of new capacity by 2050. This amount is approximately equivalent to the total R&D investment made in the past 30 years to EGS internationally, which is still less than the cost of a single, new-generation, clean-coal power plant.

Technology Review has a nice summary piece here. And you can find a lot more about geothermal here.

So add this to the list of commercial technologies that can deliver large quantities of low carbon power by mid-century. Could it be one of the 14 or so wedges we need to stabilize below 450 ppm (see here)? That seems a stretch at this point. But it could certainly be a big piece of a wedge, and that alone means it merits serious attention.

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