Why is the U.S. so far behind China in using geothermal energy to heat buildings?
The first renewable district heating system in the world to utilize deep geothermal resources was created and operated in Boise, Idaho in the 1890s. Today, barely 0.01 percent of U.S. heating demand is met by geothermal district heating systems. Yet China, less than a decade after beginning its program to deploy geothermal energy on a massive scale, now has the largest amount of geothermal district heating of any country in the world.
China has said its motivation for developing geothermal energy district heating is to provide a cleaner, more environmentally friendly way to heat its cities and communities. Wouldn’t geothermal district heating make good sense for the U.S. as well? Why does the U.S. lag so far behind in utilizing a technology we invented almost 125 years ago?
U.S. Presidents, Congressional leaders, and policy makers in general have long emphasized the importance of developing more environmentally sustainable and secure ways to meet our primary energy demands. They advocate developing domestic wind and solar resources as substitutes for coal- and gas-fired electricity generation, and biofuels for transportation fuels to replace gasoline and diesel oil. These changes are important, but we need a workable plan for completely transforming our entire energy supply system to a low-carbon, cleaner, and sustainable resource — a plan that includes using deep geothermal energy for district heating. Geothermal is sustainable technology, proven worldwide, and provides a consistent level of energy production, unlike wind or solar.
Today we meet our heating demand in the furnaces, boilers and hot water heaters by burning fossil fuels at much higher temperatures than is needed. Does it make sense to burn fuels at more than 2,000 F or more to produce the 100 F water we need to take a shower? Yet millions of people do this every day, in every city and town in the U.S.
Clearly, having a carbon-free renewable thermal energy source with a temperature closer to the temperature of use would be a big improvement. And the necessary technology for geothermal is straightforward and has been available to us for more than a century.
Here is how deep geothermal heat works: we recover heat that is naturally stored in rocks in the Earth by drilling two wells, pumping water into one well, circulating it through a permeable section of hot rock, and bringing the heated water back to the surface in the second well, where its energy can be extracted and distributed to buildings to supply heat — as was first done in Idaho in the 1890s.
Countries as diverse as France, Iceland, China, and dozens of others provide excellent examples of what is possible with geothermal district heating. More than one million homes in Paris are now supplied with geothermal heat. Iceland has utilized its high-grade geothermal resources to meet about 95 percent of heating needs, to create a clean-energy economy. In less than 50 years, by integrating its geothermal and hydro resources, Iceland transformed from complete dependence on imported fossil fuels to a renewable energy supply for virtually all its electricity and heating. Equally compelling is the fact that much of the U.S., including the Northeast, is optimal for geothermal heating. Researchers at Cornell University have actually mapped areas of the northern Appalachian Basin that are attractive for implementing geothermal district heating in the near term.
Let’s not allow geothermal district heating to become yet another example of a valuable technology that was invented in the U.S. but then perfected and deployed elsewhere. Growing concern about climate change and our continued heavy dependence on fossil fuels calls for action now to take advantage of this opportunity. We need to urge our elected officials to end the delay and to work together to develop and fund a comprehensive approach to sustainability that transforms not only how we supply electricity and transportation fuels, but also how we supply heat to our buildings.
For the U.S., geothermal heat extracted from the Earth provides a viable option that nicely complements electricity producing renewable sources such as wind, hydro and solar photovoltaic. In the U.S., our indigenous geothermal resources are well distributed and are abundantly available at the right temperatures for heating buildings and supplying hot water. A serious commitment to developing America’s geothermal potential for district heating will inevitably result in a robust renewable energy system that is clean and sustainable for the long term.
About the author: Jeff Tester is the David Croll Professor of Sustainable Energy Systems at Cornell University’s College of Engineering. He also serves as Director of the Cornell Energy Institute, a Fellow in the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, and a co-founder and member of the advisory board of the Iceland Geothermal Resource Park.
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