By Laura Szymanski, Science Policy Fellow

On 20 June 2019 the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources (ENR) held its first hearing since 2006 on the topic of geothermal energy development. The hearing was held following a bipartisan congressional delegation Arctic-focused trip led by Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), which included a tour of a geothermal plant in Iceland.

Department of Energy’s Report, GeoVision; Photo credit:
Department of Energy’s Report, GeoVision – Photo credit:

Four witnesses testified at this hearing representing the Department of Energy (DOE), the Department of Interior (DOI), and industry.  Witnesses highlighted how geothermal energy is a renewable resource that provides a clean, always-on energy source and frequently discussed the DOE’s recent study,
Geovision: Harnessing the Heat Beneath our Feet, which assesses the current state of geothermal energy, highlights potential geothermal energy production by 2050, and outlines how to achieve increased geothermal energy production.

The Honorable Daniel R. Simmons, Assistant Secretary, DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, summarized the DOE’s Geovision Report and highlighted the assessment that the U.S. geothermal energy production could provide 8.5% of all electricity by 2050, a 26 fold increase compared to the 0.4% of electricity geothermal energy currently provides.  Discussion highlighted the need for research in geothermal energy production in low-temperature geothermal as this source spans most of the U.S. outside of the west and the utility of direct heating where there is low-temperature geothermal.

Mr. Timothy R. Spisak, State Director, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) New Mexico, discussed the current state of geothermal energy production on public lands, monitoring of effects to public lands, and the permitting process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Ms. Katherine R. Young, Geothermal Program Manager, National Renewable Energy Laboratory emphasized that geothermal energy is a renewable energy source without carbon emissions and is reliable as it is it is always available and thus provides energy security.  She encouraged increased research to drive lowering costs of exploratory wells, moving forward accessing geothermal anywhere and not just where there are natural heat exchangers, and streamlining the geothermal permitting process.

The testimony of Mr. Tim Latimer, CEO, Fervo Energy, called for the restoration of the investment tax credit so that geothermal energy production would receive the same tax credits as other renewables, reform of the permitting process to allow for the use categorical exclusion for exploratory wells, and increased funding to the geothermal technology office.  Currently, each exploratory well requires a NEPA assessment even though the process and effects are the same for the drilling of each exploratory well.  The use of categorical exclusion would allow for exploratory well drilling following certain, outlined criteria, which he testified would cut delays and costs.  Following resource identification, there is further NEPA review for establishing the production well and sighting of the geothermal power plant.

Mr. Paul A. Thomsen, Vice President, Business Development- Americas, Ormat Technologies again underscored the advantages of geothermal energy including that it is cost effective, pairs well with other energy sources, and has a small footprint.  Thomsen supported an increase in access to geothermal resources beyond public lands, streamlining the permitting process, evaluating transmission and inter-connection delays, and reducing the costs through reform to the tax credits.  Currently, transmission of the power and interconnection to the grid is an issue.  While the transmission lines can be built, interconnection is a lengthy process (approximately seven years), and this infrastructure is needed to take advantage of the potential of geothermal energy.

All Senators present asked questions that suggested support for geothermal energy production, including Sen. Hirono (D-HI), although she highlighted that there are cultural concerns related to using geothermal in Hawaii.  Sen. Cortez Masto (D-NV) highlighted the Geothermal Energy Opportunities Act, which she introduced with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) days previously that would reduce barriers to obtaining leases, promote public-private partnerships to improve data collection, and promote geothermal heat pump technology and direct use of geothermal energy.