New Report Finds Huge Power Potential in Geothermal Resources

January 24, 2007

The thermal energy stored in the Earth's crust could be converted into electricity to provide a substantial portion of future U.S. power needs, probably at competitive prices and with minimal environmental impact, according to a new study. Sponsored by DOE and led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), an 18-member expert panel released a report on Monday that examined the potential to tap into the heat in Earth's crust and convert it into electricity. The report found the potential to generate 100,000 megawatts of power from geothermal resources within 50 years. That's roughly one-tenth of the total generating capacity that exists in the United States today.

While today's geothermal power plants draw from underground reservoirs of hot, permeable rock containing significant amounts of water or steam, the MIT-led panel specifically examined enhanced geothermal system (EGS) technology, which involves creating such geothermal reservoirs in areas that lack either the water or the permeability, or both. Such technologies were previously tested by DOE in New Mexico and are currently being explored in Europe and Australia. See the EGS technology description on the DOE Geothermal Program Web site.

Thanks in part to advances in drilling technologies for the oil and gas industries, the process of drilling deep into the crust to access hot, hard layers of rock and pumping water in to "stimulate" the reservoir—opening up cracks in the rock to allow water to permeate through—has already been proven. The report recommends more detailed and site-specific assessments of the U.S. geothermal resource, followed by several field trials at prime locations that would run for three to five years as a demonstration of the EGS technology. See the MIT press release and download the full report from DOE's Idaho National Laboratory Web site (PDF 14.1 MB). Download Adobe Reader.