Harnessing Heat: How the Federal Government Can Advance Geothermal Energy

April 2, 2020
Geothermal energy has yet to follow the trajectory of rapidly expanding, cheap renewables like wind and solar. To unlock the enormous potential of this clean, reliable source of energy, the federal government can drive innovation and address barriers to adoption.

There is a virtually limitless supply of energy right beneath us: geothermal heat. The Earth’s core holds heat that radiates out to the subsurface. This heat can be harnessed for a variety of uses including electricity generation, heating and cooling of buildings, and other industrial and hybrid applications. Geothermal energy is clean, safe, and renewable. Because geothermal electricity is reliable, always-on energy, it is an excellent match for a grid replete with intermittent renewables like wind and solar energy.

Geothermal technologies have been employed for over one hundred years. But while wind and solar energy have grown rapidly over the past few decades, geothermal has struggled to scale up beyond niche applications. Geothermal energy’s relatively slow growth can be attributed to a combination of unmet technical challenges and policy barriers, and an inability to fully leverage state and federal renewable energy policies that have boosted wind and solar energy’s growth.

With that said, geothermal energy has immense potential to contribute to our clean energy future. The U.S. Department of Energy’s recent GeoVision report estimates that geothermal electricity generation could increase by 26-fold in the United States by 2050 if the industry can overcome the hurdles before it. It will take a coalition of actors to realize this cleaner future, and the federal government should be a leader in these efforts. This paper provides a brief introduction to geothermal energy and identifies solutions that the federal government could pursue to unlock this vast, renewable energy resource.

The key takeaways from the report include:

  • Geothermal energy is a clean, reliable, and renewable resource that is widely available—yet underutilized—across the U.S. for electricity production, heating and cooling, and other services.
  • The U.S. Department of Energy has estimated that, by 2050, technology advances and smart policies could increase geothermal electricity generation to 60 GW (from 2.5 GW today) and provide heating or cooling services for 73 million homes.
  • The federal government can help bring this cleaner energy future to reality by increasing funding for geothermal research, development, and demonstration; streamlining permitting; offering financial incentives to ease geothermal’s adoption into the marketplace; and more.
Harnessing Heat: How the Federal Government Can Advance Geothermal Energy