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Geothermal Power Heats Up in a Down Economy

2009 could prove to be the year of geothermal in the U.S. The number of new geothermal projects in the country has risen 25 percent since last August alone, according to report out this week from the Geothermal Energy Association, an industry trade group.


But what’s behind the boom? Geothermal represents less than one-half of one percent of the electricity produced in the U.S., so it’s not exactly taking the energy industry by storm, and there is a global credit crunch going on.

According to the report, the increase is the result of new geothermal land leases from the Bureau of Land Management, as well as new projects contracted by the U.S. Navy. The Navy’s Geothermal Program Office, which manages and develops geothermal resources for the entire military — not just the Navy — recently added 10 new geothermal projects to its pipeline, totaling 262 MW. Meanwhile in December, the BLM sold leases for 194,410 acres of land for geothermal development in Oregon, Idaho and Utah. Ormat Technologies (s ORA), Enel, and Raser Technologies (s RZ) were the top three buyers for the leases, with Ormat shelling out $4.4 million for 80,982 acres.

There have been a total of 23 new projects in development since last August, according to the Geothermal Energy Association, representing an additional 1.5 GW of power.

Perhaps the timing is due to advancements in next-gen geothermal tech, which thanks partly to the magic touch of Google (s GOOG), has seen renewed interest. Last August, Google’s philanthropic arm,, announced $10.3 million in investments in a new form of geothermal called enhanced geothermal systems.

In traditional geothermal, power plants are set up near naturally occurring pockets of steam and hot water. With enhanced geothermal, which is still in the demonstration phase in various projects around the world, those conditions are replicated by fracturing hot rocks and pumping water into the system to make steam. Depending on how deep you drill, enhanced geothermal has the potential to be used anywhere on Earth, instead of relying on naturally occurring geothermal fields.

Yesterday, the Department of Energy said it was putting up $84 million for enhanced geothermal, with $35 million for research into engineered geothermal reservoirs, and $49 million for demonstration projects that can produce at least 5 megawatts per year.

But there’s still plenty of untapped traditional geothermal in the U.S., and even though Google’s investment was focused on next-gen technology, traditional geothermal may prove to be a more attractive, and safe, prospect in a shaky economy. So far, it’s one of the only commercially proven renewable power source that can deliver baseload power. And the U.S. is already a world leader in geothermal power, with over 3 gigawatts of installed capacity spread over eight states.

Price will undoubtedly continue to be another factor when it comes to evaluating geothermal. Some recent reports have said traditional geothermal is cheaper per kilowatt-hour than coal, with Credit Suisse pegging the price at 3.6 cents per kilowatt-hour, vs. 5.5 cents for coal. But geothermal still has high upfront costs, including the time and money spent on exploration. And Scientific American points out that Credit Suisse’s low-ball price includes things like tax incentives, which won’t last forever, as well the assumption that there’ll be cheap financing available for the construction of the geothermal plants — which isn’t likely in these economic times.

But despite those hurdles, it looks like there’s a big future for geothermal. There’s a long line of 126 geothermal projects in the works in the U.S., including the 23 in development since last August. And who knows? Maybe it will soon account for a full one percent of the electricity produced in the U.S. some day.

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