Outdated regulations, political squabbles, and stubborn environmental activists have kept America from embracing a form of renewable power that could solve most of the country's energy problems.
Geothermal technology harnesses energy from heat stored below Earth's crust. Proponents say it could meet a major share of U.S. energy needs within the decade. But green groups have quietly lobbied against geothermal solutions, saying they weaken federal environmental protection standards.
Rep. Russ Fulcher (R., Idaho) and Sen. Jim Risch (R., Idaho) on Thursday introduced a bill that would make it easier for geothermal drilling projects to explore federal land. An earlier version of that bill was quietly shot down by Democrats. Sources say Democratic lawmakers privately supported the bill but feared their public support would lead to pushback from green groups.
Geothermal systems convert subterranean heat into steam, which powers turbines. The energy produced by this process is essentially limitless, completely renewable and emits no carbon. The United States is the world leader in geothermal energy, even though the energy only accounts for half of 1 percent of U.S. electricity generation.
This renewable energy solution is constrained by the absence of available land. Most accessible geothermal resources in the United States are on federal land in the West, including large swathes of Utah, Nevada, and Arizona.
Unlike oil and gas firms, companies seeking to drill exploratory wells for geothermal energy on that land must undergo years of environmental review. Even though geothermal companies use the same drilling rigs as their oil and gas counterparts, they are held to a more difficult standard.
Fulcher and Risch’s bill would give geothermal drilling projects the same expedited reviews that oil and gas ventures already receive for public land. By creating a "categorical exclusion" from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the bill would shave several years off the development time of geothermal wells and make the field more enticing to investors.
Green activist groups have quietly lobbied against this plan. These groups oppose changes to NEPA, which requires a lengthy review process for proposed projects that would use public land. Activist groups worry that any exemptions to NEPA, even for clean energy sources, could undermine the rest of the law.
The National Resource Defense Council did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did the Wilderness Society, which directed the Washington Free Beacon to a statement that expresses its opposition to changes to NEPA.
Sierra Club senior attorney Nathaniel Shoaff told the Free Beacon that NEPA is "an essential tool." Shoaff said that without the act, the public would be deprived of an opportunity to hear about the benefits of certain developments on public land. The Sierra Club generally opposes developing public land.
Geothermal energy doesn't fit the narrative pushed by many green groups. Proponents don't call for more expansive federal regulation or oppose using low-risk fracking technologies. As a result, geothermal solutions have remained largely out of public view. And the small industry's limited lobbying efforts have yet to seriously move the needle in Washington.
Even with the lethargy on Capitol Hill, though, geothermal energy is picking up steam.
Proponents of geothermal energy believe minor technological breakthroughs could enable a revolution in American energy production. Some oil and gas veterans believe techniques in that field can make traditional geothermal drilling productive at scale, while others think fracking technology and 3D printing can be adapted to pull heat from rock too deep or too hard to reach with traditional geothermal methods.
Geothermal energy is typically pulled from places directly over tectonic faults, where water is heated in cracks below the Earth's surface. Heat stored at deeper levels or in less accessible rock has often been expensive to tap, the reason geothermal energy has struggled to challenge wind and solar, let alone oil and gas, in the commercial market. Some companies think new technology can bring geothermal prices in line with, or even cheaper than, those of solar and wind.
Oil companies began investing in geothermal projects in the early 2000s but largely dropped the projects to take advantage of the natural gas boom. Now, these companies are turning their attention to geothermal energy once again, this time with technologies adapted from fracking. Many companies expect to be acquired by oil companies looking to diversify their portfolios. Industry professionals are also bullish on the sector's ability to supply jobs for oil and gas workers as the country transitions away from fossil fuels.
"The cost limitations of geothermal today are an order of magnitude smaller than the limitations for deep water oil drilling were in the early 1990s," said Lance Cook, chief technology officer of Sage Geosystems. The Texas-based company hopes to apply fracking techniques to geothermal energy production and has partnered with the military to test its wells on bases.
If successful, the wells will provide a secure source of energy that would be difficult for adversaries to target. Geothermal fracking is small-scale and carries low risk of seismic activity or groundwater pollution.
Cook, who spent nearly four decades at Shell, noted that federal regulation restricted the land startups can tap. "If I went into federal lands where those [NEPA] surveys haven't been done, I'm probably looking at a five-year wait," said Cook. Companies like Sage have flocked to Texas to take advantage of its abundant private land, lenient regulations, and oil and gas experience.
A variety of technological innovations could soon reduce the barriers to geothermal energy. "Closed-loop" geothermal systems use multiple wells to recirculate the same fluid without pumps, enabling companies to harness energy almost anywhere. And advances in remote sensing could help identify geothermally valuable areas underground without costly exploratory drilling.
The Department of Energy has been supporting research and development in the industry, in part through its American-Made Geothermal Manufacturing Prize. The competition offers up to $1 million for innovations in geothermal technology. Sean Porse, who helps administer the prize, told the Free Beacon he expects the rise of 3D printing to further improve geothermal drilling operations.
Geothermal advocates point to this year's power grid blackouts in Texas to show the need for consistent, or "baseload," energy. Unlike wind and solar energy, a working geothermal well generates electricity at a steady rate for the entirety of its lifespan.
Geothermal advocates see an opportunity to tackle several American energy problems with one solution. All that's left is to see if the Biden administration's commitment to clean energy will translate to action.