When asked about the necessary steps to combat climate change, a typical response might include transitioning to cleaner, renewable forms of energy. The response could point out that the burning of fossil fuels for electricity, heating, and fuels is a primary driver of ever-rising emission levels, and finding alternative sources to power these different components of modern life is an urgent challenge. However, when asked what sources of energy might replace fossil fuels, the respondent would likely suggest solar and wind power, while there’s only a slim chance that geothermal energy would be mentioned.
Geothermal energy is the process of harnessing the heat contained in the rock and water below the earth’s surface for heat and electricity generation and is a source of power that possesses unique qualities for the energy transition. To date, it remains severely underdeveloped relative to its potential in all but a few places around the world, most notably Iceland, where the island’s location on diverging tectonic plates gives it ideal conditions to produce geothermal energy for electricity and heating.
Geothermal has even been dubbed “the forgotten renewable,” with solar and wind taking center stage in the public consciousness. One 2015 poll in Italy even found that only 18% of respondents thought geothermal had a positive effect on the world, compared to 54% and 46% for solar and wind, respectively.
As the chart below shows, wind and solar dominate geothermal in terms of actual deployment over the last ten years. This is despite geothermal being cost-competitive in certain locations and, crucially, not suffering from the problem of intermittency that solar and wind experience. In fact, geothermal energy is currently the only renewable energy source that can provide baseload power — or the ability to dispatch electricity at any time as it is not dependent on external variables such as the sun or wind.
Yet globally, the geothermal sector remains woefully underfunded and lacks adequate policy support. Nevertheless, with the International Energy Agency (IEA) recently announcing global electricity demand is outpacing the growth in renewable energy, geothermal energy could be a vital player in the energy mix if the transition to renewable sources is to accelerate to necessary levels.
An Overview of Geothermal Energy
Simply, geothermal energy is all heat trapped below the earth’s surface in rock and water. On its own, geothermal makes its way to the surface through natural occurrences like hot springs and volcanoes. In theory, geothermal energy is available everywhere. The necessary heat can be found if drilled deep enough into the earth’s core. However, with current technology, only certain locations are feasible, namely, where the heat is closer to the earth’s surface. Notably, the “Ring of Fire,” a series of tectonic plates that border the Pacific Ocean, is an area where global leaders in geothermal energy are found — including Indonesia, the Philippines, and California.
To date, the most common conventional uses of geothermal for heat and electricity tap into shallower hydrothermal sources close to the earth’s surface by pumping the trapped heat through a drilled well. The harnessed or pumped hot water is distributed to nearby buildings through pipes for heating and cooling purposes. For electricity, steam drives a turbine that creates electricity, requiring a higher temperature than that used for heat. These conventional modes have historically only occurred where geothermal resources can be observed above ground, as other exploration methods are still developing, resulting in a few clear leaders who are geographically gifted in this sense.
While conventional methods have been in use for over a century, emerging methods of harvesting geothermal energy that use advanced drilling techniques — going deeper into the earth’s surface — could drastically increase the amount of energy made available. The most notable is enhanced geothermal technologies (EGS). This technique is where fluids (water) are injected through a well into the earth, fracturing impermeable rock that contains trapped heat. This heat is then pumped to the earth’s surface through a secondary well where it is used for energy production. Once cooled, the water at the surface is then reinjected and the process is repeated. The figure below demonstrates the process. Provided such technologies are improved and readily deployed, geothermal’s potential could be groundbreaking and has even led the US Department of Energy to formulate a scenario where power generation from geothermal increases 26 times over by 2050.
Barriers to Development
Despite the many positive benefits mentioned, geothermal remains underdeveloped, and there are only tentative signs that indicate an acceleration in its development. Unlike solar and wind projects, there are much higher up-front costs associated with geothermal projects involving exploration and drilling deep into the earth. This initial risk has led to little private sector development, which, coupled with inadequate policy support from governments has resulted in geothermals’ slow deployment.
In an interview with Spheres of Influence, Andy Hira, a political scientist at Simon Fraser University who leads a research group on clean energy, calls this a “chicken and egg problem.” Since there are high up-front risks, no private sector champion is willing to spearhead investment in the industry, which in turn does not lead the government to take bold action through proactive policy. In a recent working paper, Hira focuses on geothermal development in British Columbia, deemed to have an abundant geothermal potential given its location on the Ring of Fire but to date does not generate any. He cites poor policy support, including regulatory barriers for permitting, and hydropower’s dominance in the province which has led the monopoly utility BC Hydro to neglect alternative sources of energy for development.
Elsewhere, policy support is lacking, including in the US, where permitting processes can take years, and inadequate research and development funding (R&D) is granted. R&D funding is crucial to help drive down costs and support the technological improvements needed to make geothermal more scalable and available in more locations. This lack of funding circulates back to an absence of public perception surrounding geothermal energy, and calls for its development are largely absent in energy transition discussions.
Unlike solar and wind, geothermal energy cannot advertise itself by way of installation, with its small infrastructure footprint making it barely visible to the public. Furthermore, geothermal is at a disadvantage compared to solar and wind projects which are faster to become operational. The necessary factors of harvesting sun and wind, such as determining where it will be sunny or windy to then place solar or wind farms, can be easily determined, often making it a safer financial bet. Comparatively, geothermal could take years of exploration, drilling, and installation to get a location producing power. But these obstacles in popularity cannot detract from efforts to grow geothermal and help it reach its potential.
With geothermal’s many applications for heat and electricity, there is a clear impetus to accelerate its deployment. Its effectiveness might especially be true for places where geothermal resources are known to have high, easy-to-access potential yet remain underdeveloped from lack of government support or opposition from vested interests from the dominant energy source.
When asked to comment on where geothermal energy has strong potential for near-term success, Hira pointed to the ease with which geothermal can be deployed for heating and cooling on large businesses or industrial parks, and the ease with which skills and knowledge from the oil and gas sector can be transferred to geothermal development. The former point would eliminate the emissions emanating from these buildings, while the latter should be of particular interest to politicians in places like Western Canada.
Geothermal energy wells are drilled using much of the same technology, and in places with large numbers of oil and gas workers, this could serve as a source of transferable employment, providing a partial solution to the dilemma of environmental protection and employment in the natural resources industry. In some cases, geothermal energy can even take advantage of existing gas wells, where engineers discovered the resource through exploration for that resource.
Looking at emerging technologies like EGS, it is clear that policy support and R&D funding will be of even greater importance than it is for more conventional uses. Yet, this technology is still expensive and will require subsidies, much like how solar and wind received protection on their way to becoming economically viable sources of power. This is a bet worth taking: if successful, access to geothermal could be expanded beyond places with suitable tectonic features.
Despite the general continued lack of policy advocacy, Hira believes the chance is not lost for countries like Canada, which possess both the resource potential and technical know-how to accelerate geothermal energy, and believes that it is still early in the geothermal game. Geothermal’s ability to provide baseload power – something which wind and solar cannot yet do – bears repeating and should be articulated clearly to the public. While it might never surpass its other renewable counterparts in most places, geothermal is not an energy source to be brushed off as too risky or difficult to pursue. The limitless, replenishing power that it provides makes it an important piece of the energy transition and should be pursued as such.