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$350M Stimulus Boost Could Begin New Era for U.S. Geothermal Energy

The Obama Administration gave geothermal energy generation in the U.S. a huge shot in the arm Wednesday with the announcement of $350 million in stimulus funds to scale the barriers of tapping the Earth’s heat as a steady renewable power source.

The geothermal energy industry, which gets far less attention than wind and solar, rejoiced, especially since just a few years ago it seemed federal funding would disappear.

“In one shot, this is more funding now than in the past 20 years,” Karl Gawell, executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association in Washington, D.C., told me yesterday.

He believes the significance of the funding goes beyond the sheer dollars by signaling a new direction for the industry. President George W. Bush at one point seemed keen to terminate the geothermal funding, Gawell said, but a report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggested geothermal could large role to play in America’s energy future.

The report said a reasonable investment in geothermal research and development could lead to 100 gigawatts or more of generating capacity, compared to about 3,000 megawatts now. According to GEA research, 126 geothermal energy projects now under development may add up to 5,500 megawatts to the nation’s overall capacity, mostly in the Western U.S.

The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Geothermal Technologies Program will use the $350 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to help expand geothermal resources and break down technological barriers. The largest slice -- $140 million -- is allocated for demonstration projects in new regions, oil and natural gas fields, geopressured fields and areas with lower-temperature resources.

Another $100 million is earmarked for exploration techniques revolving around drilling, siting, and other processes that carry a high upfront risk. Gawell pointed out a recent assessment from the U.S. Geological Survey estimated 80 percent of the country’s geothermal resources are hidden, requiring better exploration technology.

About $80 million will go toward enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) technology research and development to expand generation capacity across the country, while the DOE will spend about $30 million on a national geothermal data system, resource assessment and classification system.

“It’s hitting on a lot of points that resonate with the geothermal community,” Gawell said of the funding plan.

Wednesday’s announcement also included money for solar -- $117.6 million split between photovoltaic technology development, solar energy development and concentrating solar power research.

Image: Hot Springs in Steamboat Springs, Nevada. Source: U.S. Department of Energy

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