Mining heat from the earth? New technology shows promise.
Here's one vision for easing America's energy and emissions woes: Hundreds of drilling rigs are deployed throughout the country. But they're not prospecting for oil; they're looking for underground rock hot enough to produce steam-driven electricity. The potential? Enough power to provide 10 percent of US electricity by 2050 – with near-zero emissions of greenhouse gases.
That's the promise of "enhanced geothermal systems," or EGS, says a recent report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.
There are just two major catches. First, about $800 million in research and development is needed over the next decade to make the drilling technology cost-effective. Second, the Department of Energy is trying to kill the program by ending its funding.
On Monday, the DOE unveiled a $24.3 billion fiscal 2008 budget with more funding for nuclear power, alternative fuels, and science programs – but nothing for geo- thermal.
"The department will conduct our own internal review and assessment of the [MIT] report and its recommendations," DOE spokesman Craig Stevens said in an e-mail. But geothermal energy has "already entered the mainstream," he added. The DOE aims to fund new technologies.
Some parts of the technology are indeed mature. For years, conventional geothermal technology has been tapping mostly hot springs formations in a few isolated locations in the Western US, providing about 0.3 percent of the nation's electricity. The newer, enhanced approach identified by MIT could be developed virtually anywhere.
"It appears that large areas of the United States are suitable for future geo- thermal exploitation in the near term that have not been considered in the past," states the recent report, sponsored by the DOE and written by an 18-member panel convened by MIT. "Most of the key technical requirements to make [it] work economically over a wide area of the country are in effect, with remaining goals easily within reach."