Geothermal Energy: A Win-Win for Democrats and Republicans?

Geothermal energy is at the precipice of a major breakthrough in the United States. As technology rapidly advances, it’s seeming more possible than ever that the once niche energy production method could soon scale up for mass deployment in nearly any environment. Pilot projects are taking off across the country as federal funding rolls in for research and development of these new methods, but the future of geothermal remains mired in political uncertainty. While it currently enjoys bipartisan support, many pundits worry that a lack of cooperation could lead to geothermal’s demise before it even has a chance to get started at a commercial level.
Currently, geothermal energy accounts for just a tiny sliver of the world’s overall energy mix, representing just 0.5% of renewable energy globally. This is because traditional methods of geothermal energy production only take advantage of unusual geologic locations where heat from the Earth’s core bubbles up to the surface and is readily accessed, such as geysers or hot springs. But the Earth’s heat can be accessed from anywhere on Earth if you’re willing to dig for it.
The issue, of course, is profitability. “To grow as a national solution, geothermal must overcome significant technical and non-technical barriers in order to reduce cost and risk,” says the introduction to a 2019 U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) report — GeoVision: Harnessing the Heat Beneath Our Feet. “The subsurface exploration required for geothermal energy is foremost among these barriers, given the expense, complexity, and risk of such activities.”
Drilling deep enough to access sufficient heat to run a power plant is no small feat. But experimental ‘enhanced geothermal energy systems’ have made incredible leaps and bounds in recent years by adopting deep-drilling technologies from the fossil fuel industry, among other novel approaches. Using hydraulic fracking technology has been a major boon to the emerging sector’s bottom line, and investors are eagerly funding research into whether nuclear fusion could provide the next big geothermal tech breakthrough.
The Biden Administration is particularly bullish about geothermal’s potential to contribute to the country’s decarbonization goals as a reliable baseload energy with zero carbon emissions. As such, the feds have introduced a sweeping initiative to speed up the development of enhanced geothermal systems (ESG). A 2019 Department of Energy report projected that if ESG progresses as planned, geothermal power could represent around 60 gigawatts of installed capacity in the United States by 2050 and 8.5 percent of the nation’s electricity – more than 20 times higher than current levels.
There’s only one problem: politics. Currently, geothermal enjoys relatively bipartisan support, but there is some cause for concern that that spirit of cooperation won’t last, or won’t be strong enough to push geothermal investment forward quickly or intensely enough to make a dent in the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. “While [geothermal energy] has begun to attract significant investment from oil companies and the Biden administration, political and ideological divisions are fueling tensions between its supporters,” The Hill recently reported.
In theory, geothermal energy is a win-win for everyone, on both sides of the aisle. The Democrats get forward movement on expanded and diversified clean energy deployment, and the Republicans get a novel form of energy production that stands to enormously benefit the fossil fuels industry and its considerable workforce that risks being orphaned by the clean energy transition. As geothermal energy tech fits perfectly with existing fossil fuel extraction methods, the oil and gas industry has a huge leg up on existing infrastructure and a trained workforce that could easily transition to geothermal production without skipping a beat.
The only problem with a win-win solution in the United States is that neither party wants to see the other one win, regardless of their own benefit. And with the upcoming elections, a politicized geothermal strategy could soon be dead in the water. According to Jamie Beard, the head pro-geothermal nonprofit Project InnerSpace, the geothermal industry and its supporters have to do “some really fast, really hard work to figure out how to agree on a path — so geothermal doesn’t get stuck in lawsuits and friction and fail to launch, and we, you know, burn up the planet.”

About Parvin Faghfouri Azar

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