By Ryan Haupt, GSA Science Policy Fellow
Congress has recently been considering several bills related to the growing field of geothermal energy development and production. The principles behind geothermal energy are relatively simple: the earth produces heat beneath the crust, that heat dissipates through the crust, and that heat can be harnessed to produce electricity or simply to provide warmth (which would otherwise require electricity)(Fig. 1).
The idea of using the heat generated by the earth isn’t a new one. Boise, Idaho, installed America’s first geothermal district heating system in the 1890s, and the city has relied on geothermal heat ever since (Fig. 2). In fact, the U.S. remains a global leader in installed geothermal capacity, and other smaller countries, such as Iceland and El Salvador, produce over 25% of their electricity using geothermal plants. Taken together, the pieces of legislation aim to help support the use of geothermal resources in the U.S. via a combination of funding for the research, development, and refinement of the necessary technology, and making the private deployment of geothermal more streamlined and economically viable.
Two bipartisan bills that share similar goals that have made progress recently are S. 2657 the “Advanced Geothermal Innovation Leadership Act of 2019” (or “AGILE”) Act and H.R. 5374 the “Advanced Geothermal Research and Development Act of 2019.” The AGILE Act is sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), the chair and ranking member on the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources (ENR), respectively. Hearings on the bill were held last July, and it was passed out of committee on 19 November. The bill would help update assessment of potential geothermal resources, expand research into secondary uses of the technology, and improve permitting for geothermal development on public lands.
The Advanced Geothermal Research and Development Act of 2019 is sponsored by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK-03) and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX-30), the ranking member and chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology (SST), respectively. The bill was marked up (i.e., the process for considering and voting on amendments to a bill) and passed unanimously by the committee on 12 February. The bill would authorize the Department of Energy’s geothermal research and development activities, as well as establishing a geothermal computing program. These activities would include more exploratory drilling in a variety of geologic settings, assessing the environmental impacts relative to the overall benefits of geothermal energy production, and creating a geothermal workforce development program.
The aim of the bills is to provide federal funding so that geothermal projects can move past the stage of being too expensive and risky for the private sector to invest in, and to start seeing the market success seen by renewables such as wind and solar.
Both bills establish a prize for researching coproduction of minerals from geothermal brines, one of the aforementioned secondary uses. These brines could serve as a source of the critical mineral lithium, a key component of batteries that the U.S. currently relies upon international sources to acquire. Grid-scale batteries and high-density batteries for electric vehicles are considered a key part of reducing reliance on fossil fuels. It is interesting that geothermal, in addition to providing electricity and heat on its own, may be able to contribute to other aspects of a broader renewable energy system too.
Both bills also include funding for facilities to support the continued development of new technologies, such as enhanced geothermal systems (EGS). EGS is a method of geothermal heat extraction using subsurface fracturing and injected water to create thermal reservoirs. This method has the potential to extend the use of geothermal resources to more areas of the U.S. Currently, the vast majority of geothermal energy production is located in western states, particularly California, but these bills would further mandate the development of at least one geothermal system in the eastern U.S. to demonstrate the broad applicability of geothermal resources (Fig. 3).
The other pair of bills that may help geothermal achieve broader deployment are H.R. 4026 and S. 2270, both titled the “Enhancing Geothermal Production on Federal Lands Act.” The goal of these bills is to bring the geothermal industry closer to the model currently used by the oil and natural gas industry in terms of developing projects on public lands via a categorical exclusion. The bills have been endorsed by Ormat Technologies, the largest geothermal developer in the U.S., which has testified that if they had the same allowances as oil and natural gas, they expect that they would double their production of geothermal energy and “prevent a lot of CO2 from being released.” Both the House and Senate versions are still in committee.
The AGILE Act was included as part of a broad energy innovation package put together by Sen. Murkowski and Sen. Manchin. There were many proposed amendments, but the package stalled due to a procedural vote. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) strategically switched his vote, which leaves open the option to revisit the package later.
Any attempts to find a way forward for these pieces of legislation, either individually or as part of a larger package, are currently on hold as Congress focuses on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and then goes on recess.
One challenge that arises from an increased reliance on renewable energy is that many renewables don’t provide power as consistently and reliably as fossil fuels. Geothermal, however, is “always on” and can hopefully provide minerals to build better batteries to store energy from more dynamic renewables until its needed, therefore potentially smoothing out some of the peaks and troughs of sources like wind and solar, without contributing additional greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. With so many potential benefits, it will be exciting to see if the other bills continue to make progress and thus support this promising old, but still innovative, technology.