In 2006, a panel led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology surveyed the prospects for electricity production from enhanced geothermal systems. Its conclusions were conservative but optimistic. The panel suggested that with modest federal support, geothermal power could play a critical role in America's energy future, adding substantially to the nation's store of renewable energy and more than making up for coal-burning power plants that would have to be retired.
Following up on the M.I.T. study and a separate survey of its own, the Bureau of Land Management issued a decision last month that would open up as many as 190 million acres to leases for geothermal exploration and development. These lands are mostly in the West, where hot rock lies closer to the surface than it generally does in the East.
There is a lot of research yet to be done about geothermal sources, new techniques for deep drilling and energy generation at the surface. But the basics are clear enough. Water is injected deep into the earth where it absorbs heat from the surrounding rock. As the fluid returns to the surface, that heat is used to generate electricity. The fluid is then re-injected. The system forms a closed loop. It creates almost no emissions and is entirely renewable. It also occupies a smaller surface area than either solar or wind power.
Still, large-scale commercial production is at least a decade away and will require improvements on currently available technology. Geothermal development also will mean still more competition for scarce water, more holes in the ground and more roads to service those holes.
The M.I.T. report’s statement that the success of geothermal production “would parallel the development of the U.S. coal-bed methane industry” is no doubt meant to be reassuring. Yet in parts of the West, coal-bed methane has been an environmental disaster, both for fragile landscapes and the wildlife that depend on them.
Geothermal development must not be allowed to foster another drilling free-for-all of the kind we’ve seen during the past decade. Done right, it could help free the country of the grievous environmental burden of coal-burning power plants. Done wrong, it could create grievous environmental problems of its own. Mindful of the dangers, the next administration should commit to developing this extraordinary resource.
NYTimes.com Jan 13 2009 Editorial