The Geothermal Option — An Opportunity Not to be Missed

Excerpts from The Hill

In the face of today’s complex challenges, Americans are seeking opportunities for positive change. Two key examples of major challenges are growing concerns about the impacts of climate change driven by carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels, and concerns about the impacts of our failing infrastructure after years of neglect.

Many U.S. presidents, congressional and state leaders — and an increasing number of businesses, large and small — are emphasizing that our energy system must reduce carbon emissions and use more sustainable resources. They also support fixing our infrastructure. Repairing bridges and roads and deploying renewable domestic wind and solar energy systems as substitutes for coal- and gas-fired electricity generation will have complementary effects if done correctly. These changes will lower our carbon emissions, provide good job opportunities and make us more competitive. But repairing bridges and roads and increasing solar and wind energy are not enough to achieve the critical improvements that we need. We need a comprehensive plan to transform our energy supply system to dramatically lower our carbon footprint and improve the vitality and livability of our communities and cities. Using geothermal energy for heating offers a solution to both goals.

A closer look at how we supply and use energy today reveals the key reason why geothermal energy is a good choice. About 20 percent of our total primary energy is used in the U.S. to supply heat over a range of end-use temperatures that are lower than the boiling point of water. Much of this heating demand in most American homes and commercial buildings is met by burning natural gas, oil or propane in hot water heaters and furnaces at much higher temperatures than needed. Another 10 percent of our total primary energy is used at somewhat higher temperatures to provide heat by burning fossil fuels for commercial and industrial processes.

The laws of thermodynamics — as well as common sense — tell us that burning fuels at 1,800 degrees Celsius or more just to produce hot water at 100 degrees Celsius or less to provide space heating at even lower temperatures is inherently wasteful. Yet millions of people do this every day, in every city and town in the U.S. to heat our homes and buildings, provide the hot water required for everyday necessities and for essential industrial processes. To achieve an energy system that does not rely on carbon-emitting, depletable fossil energy sources for most of its energy, we must change how we heat our commercial and residential buildings.

At least 16 states in the northern heating-dominated region of the U.S. have set aggressive goals to lower their carbon footprint by 80 to 100 percent in the next 20 to 40 years. Direct use of geothermal energy will significantly reduce fossil fuel use, providing an effective solution to achieve desired levels of decarbonization. Hot water can also be used to supply chillers, providing a source of cooling. Ground-source heat pump systems are another geothermal solution that is increasingly being used for space heating and cooling. Together with a green power source, these options enable a completely carbon-free energy system.

Fortunately, the ideal resource is right below our feet anywhere in the U.S. in the form of naturally stored geothermal heat in rocks at depths of 2 to 3 kilometers, where rock temperatures are near 100 degrees Celsius. The technology to extract that heat already exists and has been in use for more than a century, though largely unnoticed by Americans.

Originally published in The Hill | August 30, 2021

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