Last month, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) announced plans to make more than 190 million acres of federal land available for geothermal energy development based on the findings in the Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS). The land is in 12 western states - Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming - and could potentially provide 5,540 megawatts (MW) of new geothermal power capacity by 2015 and another 6600 MW by 2025, or enough energy to power 12 million homes. Revenue from the leases will be shared with the states and counties where the leases are located. The states will get 50%, the counties 25% and the remaining 25% will go into a federal fund for future development of geothermal energy. Excluded from any leasing are wilderness areas, wilderness study areas and national parks.
According to the Department of the Interior website, "Geothermal energy will play a key role in powering America's energy future," (Secretary of the Interior, Dirk) Kempthorne said, "and 90 percent of our nation's geothermal resources are found on Federal lands. Facilitating their leasing and development under environmentally sound regulations is crucial to supplying the secure, clean energy American homes and businesses need."
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) believes there could be even more geothermal energy available in the western states. Their first assessment of geothermal resources in 30 years estimate that "identified geothermal resources in the West could produce 9,057 MW of power, while another 30,033 MW of power could be generated from conventional geothermal resources that have not yet been discovered," according to Renewable Energy World.
Enhanced geothermal, which only requires places where the earth is hot plus the high-pressure injection of fluids rather than the hot subterranean liquids that are required with traditional geothermal, will potentially provide even more energy.
Opening so much public land to geothermal development has its fans and its critics:
Although geothermal facilities have a smaller footprint than solar or wind fields, they would leave their mark on the land much like oil and gas development - with roads, pipelines, power plants and transmission lines.
Daniel Patterson, Southwest director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said geothermal energy holds potential. "But we still have to consider, are our public lands there to be turned into energy farms? Or should we be investing in rooftop solar?" - Los Angeles Times
Renewable energy companies are jumping on the geothermal bandwagon. Ormat Technologies Inc. has secured 15 of the 16 tracts offered for lease on Mount Spurr, Alaska, an active volcanic region about 75 miles west of Anchorage, and is also developing technology to produce geothermal energy using hot water from a producing oil well.
Raser Technologies has completed major construction of its Thermo geothermal plant in Utah, the first in the state in more than two decades. And a 100 MW geothermal plant, the Shoshone Renaissance plant, is planned for lands owned by the Shoshone Nation. Phase one should be complete in a year and a half and Riverside Public Utilities in Riverside, California has already agreed to purchase the power.
Companies like Google believe that Geothermal has an important role to play in the renewable energy mix. And on this, the Federal government appears to be on board.