Geysersgeothermaldrilling

Initial geothermal energy drilling at The Geysers in 1977. Source: Max Crittenden via Wikimedia Commons.

Geothermal energy could be considered the Holy Grail of clean energy. Not only is it clean and renewable, but it can do something wind and solar cannot do: It can provide base-load power. Yet, despite its advantages just one half of one percent of all of America's electricity came from this game-changing power source. That, however, could be about to change thanks to fracking.

Replacing fossil fuels
Two-thirds of the electricity generated in America comes from burning a fossil fuel like coal or natural gas. The heat from burning the fuel heats water to produce steam. This steam is used to turn a turbine, which creates electricity. It's far from an ideal solution, as burning the fossil fuels creates harmful greenhouse gases. On top of that, we're not exactly sure when we will run out of these fuel sources, as the cheapest sources have been used up, causing fossil fuel prices to be quite volatile. 

This is why the world been on a quest to replace these fuels with something better. The problem is that the top two solutions, wind and solar, don't always work. Sometimes, the sun just doesn't shine, and the wind doesn't blow, and at times these methods can cause more harm than good. The fact that these technologies can't be used for base-load power is a problem for our always-on-the-go economy.

There is, however, a power source that can solve both problems at once: geothermal energy. It uses steam and hot water from beneath the earth's surface to turn a turbine that creates electricity. It's always on, so it's a good base-load power generator. That being said, these projects are expensive to build, and usually about half of the wells drilled to find these hot water sources end up with nothing but a dry hole.

Geothermal Energy The Geysers

Geothermal Energy at The Geysers field in California. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Stepheng3

How fracking is helping
The issues holding back geothermal, however, are beginning to be overcome thanks to the surge in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the U.S. The oil and gas industry has collected a tremendous amount of data on the temperature and pressure of water found in the wells they are drilling. Further, the industry has acquired a substantial amount of 3-D seismic data, which was used to complete the National Geothermal Data System this year. This data can be used to better place geothermal wells. 

On top of that, a new geothermal technology is emerging called enhanced geothermal systems, which could solve the problem of drilling expensive dry holes by using fracking. The process is similar to hydraulically fracturing shale for an oil and gas well as it combines water, chemicals, and pressure to fracture rocks beneath the surface. The use of water in the process would enable a geothermal energy producer to turn a dry hole into a commercial geothermal system, as the water hitting the hot rocks would produce steam. That steam would then return to the surface, where it would then turn a turbine and create electricity.

Initial testing has produced some pretty compelling results. For example, enhanced geothermal systems have been used to boost the productivity of existing geothermal fields in Desert Peak, Nevada. Not only did it boost the field's productivity by 38%, but the facility can produce electricity at a cost of just $0.02-$0.05 per kilowatt-hour, which is well below the $0.06-$0.07 per kilowatt-hour for natural gas power.

Vast untapped potential
This is really good news for America, because as the following map shows, America has a vast geothermal resource:

Geothermal Energy Map

Source: EIA.  

In fact, a geothermal resource assessment that was completed on this potential estimated that the resource found in just nine of America's western states could potentially provide over 20% of the country's electricity needs. While that's a very optimistic scenario, the U.S. Department of Energy sees the potential for at least 10% of America's electricity needs coming from enhanced geothermal systems.

With a new fracking-based technology to tap these geothermal energy resources, America is finally beginning to move forward with new geothermal energy projects. There are now nearly 200 geothermal projects currently in various stages of development in the U.S. These projects represent nearly 8,000 megawatts of capacity, which is substantially more than our current capacity of 3,000 megawatts. While not all of these projects will likely be built, America is at least heading in the right direction to unlock this resource.   

Final thoughts
Thanks to a new technology that was inspired by fracking, America might finally begin to realize its vast geothermal energy potential. While reaching that full potential won't be enough to completely eradicate fossil fuels from the mix, it would provide a nice base-load power source to work with other renewables like wind and solar. 

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