geothermal

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Clean Energy from Below

UPDATED with interactive map

Hear my radio feature on geothermal energy and the rest of a five-part collaboration on renewable energy between NPR and KQED, on NPR’s Morning Edition.

It may be a distant second to California now, but Nevada is making a run to become the nation’s largest producer of geothermal energy.

A conventional geothermal power plant at The Geysers complex in Lake County. (Photo: Craig Miller)

California still produces an estimated 80% of the nation’s geothermal power (used to produce electricity*), with more than 40 plants online. But according to a summary from the Geothermal Energy Association (GEA) this summer:

“Nevada could become the leading geothermal energy producer in the coming years if growth and production trends continue on their current trajectories. Nevada’s 86 planned or developing geothermal power plants have the potential add up to 3,686.4 Megawatts of geothermal power to Nevada’s energy portfolio, power for 2.6 million homes – enough to meet the electricity needs of 100% of the homes in the Las Vegas metropolitan area.”

GEA describes 14 Nevada projects as being “in latter stages of development.” Meanwhile, says the group’s executive director, Karl Gawell, development in California is slowing down. “Everything’s relative,” Gawell told me in a phone interview. “Projects are moving forward in California, they just take longer.” Continue reading

California’s Future Energy Mix

The Quest/Climate Watch series “33×20: California’s Clean Power Countdown” continues on Monday, with the first of two parts on one company’s attempt to build one of the nation’s largest PV solar arrays in San Benito County.

(Image: Solargen Energy)

(Image: Solargen Energy)

With its ambitious 33%-by-2020 renewable energy goal, California will be looking for renewable megawatts from all corners of the state. While the state may hit 18-19% by the end of this year, reaching 33% will require approximately a doubling of renewable power, since the state’s energy appetite will continue to grow in the meantime.

So, where will the energy come from? According to the California Public Utilities Commission, wind and solar will have to carry much of the “load.” Check out the CPUC projections in the charts below.

Renewables Meet NIMBY…Everywhere

Suddenly, everywhere you look nowadays, prospects for clean, green energy are being muddied by NIMBY* syndrome.

Windmills dwarf a dairy farm in upstate New York. Photo: Craig Miller

Wind farm: Windmills dwarf a dairy barn in upstate New York. Photo: Craig Miller

We saw it first-hand in Rob Schmitz’s series on “green gridlock” in California’s southeastern deserts. Trepidation there turns more on the transmission lines that would have to go up, to connect solar, wind and geothermal fields to population centers where the power is needed.

We’ve seen it at work in efforts to license wave power projects along the West Coast.

In Marin County, it took the McEvoy Ranch nine years from concept to completion, to get one 150-foot windmill up and running, to power the olive operation. Objections from the neighbors forced them to move the site more than a half-mile, and downsize the turbine to three quarters the proposed height and one third the power output (more about this in the next Quest/Climate Watch special, to premiere on August 25).

Now, as James Glanz reports in the New York Times, seismic fears are causing tremors in geothermal fields north of San Francisco.

Glanz writes that with venture funding from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Google, Sausalito-based AltaRock Energy is deploying “enhanced” geothermal technology to wrest more steam from the earth. But fears over the potential for unleashing earthquakes in the process are not enhancing their prospects.

*For the truly uninitiated: “Not in My Back Yard”

Seizing the Moment

All the hand-wringing about seized-up capital markets hasn’t stopped environmental visionaries from promoting their scenarios for a clean, green–and robust–economy. Indeed, many have seized  the moment to suggest that an all-out attack on climate change and pollution could be just what the doctor ordered.

They’re being egged on by the President-elect, who offered this nugget in a recent pre-election interview with Time magazine:

“…we are just going to completely revamp how we use energy in a way that deals with climate change, deals with national security and drives our economy, that’s going to be my number one priority when I get into office, assuming, obviously, that we have done enough to just stabilize the immediate economic situation.”

That’s a whopping assumption. Nevertheless the advocacy group Environment California has released its own vision, asserting that clean energy is “the foundation of America’s economic future.” The group’s Blueprint for Economic Recovery and Environmental Protection Through Clean Energy Solutions is not groundbreaking but rather an aggregation of ideas and studies that have been put forth already, leading to the same general conclusion.

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The report attempts to bundle the potential of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal, coupled with aggressive conservation measures, which it says could alone cut the nation’s electric use by a quarter.

For example, Environment California suggests that we might set aside 9% of Nevada (that’s about 10,000 square miles–imagine Massachusetts covered border-to-border with solar panels) for solar-thermal installations or harness the wind potential of five interior states (the Dakotas, Kansas, Montana and Texas), either one could cover the nation’s entire electric bill. Of course, either of these approaches would require massive, intrusive distribution networks to get the power where it’s needed, so I these ideas may be intended as inspirational, not literal.

Another idea, which requires very little distribution infrastructure, is carpeting the nation’s rooftops with photovoltaic solar panels. The group says that would provide about 70% of our energy needs.

The report also advocates for cutting our oil consumption in half, though it does not specify by when.

How does all this translate to economic redemption? By creating “millions of jobs.” According to the report:

“…repowering America will plant the seeds of economic growth and revitalization across the country. And by creating the world’s largest market for renewable energy and energy efficient technology, we will give American companies a leg up in the most important economic competition of the 21st century – the race to supply environmentally sound technologies to the rest of the world.”

The report cites several studies to support this conclusion. Some were done several years ago and may contain assumptions that don’t quite hold up in today’s recessionary, capital-constrained environment. The more recent work includes a University of Tennessee study from 2006, which projected that converting a quarter of U.S. electric production and transportation fuels would, over about 20 years, yield more than five million jobs.

You are guaranteed to hear a great deal more on this theme, as a new administration takes charge with it’s “number one priority.” Still unanswered is who will provide the capital–and the incentives to steer capital–into the clean, green economy of our dreams.

Photo: Installing solar panels on the roof at KQED.