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Clean, Abundant, And Underfoot: Geothermal Goes Global

It’s the clean energy you never think of, but power from the heat in the ground is about to take off.

Clean, Abundant, And Underfoot: Geothermal Goes Global
Volcano via Shutterstock

Given its abundance, it’s strange that geothermal power doesn’t get more attention. A 2006 report by MIT researchers found that the U.S. could get 2,000 times its annual electricity supply just by using existing technology, and perhaps ten times that by developing new methods. Which isn’t shabby. And yet, today, geothermal tends to be a secondary conversation after wind and solar, despite the U.S. continuing to lead the world in installed capacity.

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It may not lead forever. A new report from Pike Research counts 454 geothermal power projects underway around the world. Sixty-four countries now have schemes–double the number of a few years ago. Countries like Turkey, Indonesia, and Chile have been on a geothermal tear (see this report from last year). And it’s possible that Africa, too, will soon have a big industry. Around the Rift Valley, countries like Kenya are starting projects, backed by development banks.

“Although a substantial portion of this capacity will never reach fruition, it’s clear that both project developers and investors have recognized the vast energy potential of geothermal resources, signaling a likely expansion in geothermal activity over the next decade,” says Pike analyst Mackinnon Lawrence.

The greatest number of projects are still in North America (about 200), followed by Asia Pacific (where Indonesia has 80% of the new builds), and Latin America. Outside the U.S., Iceland is the undisputed king. It is generating so much cheap electricity that it’s considering investing in subsea cables to export it to the rest of Europe.

The Obama Administration has awarded $336 million for geothermal projects, including $20 million for this puppy in Oregon. The new generation of plants use Enhanced Geothermal Systems, which pump water into dry rock, forcing heated water to the surface (the steam is used to make electricity). Older geothermal, as in Iceland, uses water already heated by the Earth’s core.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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