World’s Largest Producer of Geothermal Electricity

I would have guessed Iceland, but it’s actually the U.S.:

Beyond the sun, a new wave of clean energy

As policymakers promote alternative energy sources to reduce the United States’ emissions of greenhouse gases and its dependence on foreign oil, entrepreneurs are becoming increasingly inventive about finding novel ways to power the economy.

Beyond solar power and wind, which is America’s most developed renewable-energy sector, a host of companies are exploring a variety of more obscure technologies. Researchers are trying to come up with ways to turn algae into diesel fuel. In landfills, startups are attempting to wring energy out of waste such as leaves, tires and “car fluff” from junked automobiles.

It is hard to predict what portion of the country’s needs could be met by these emerging technologies. The United States is already the world’s largest producer of geothermal electricity, with 212 plants generating 3,119 megawatts. A panel convened by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded in a recent report that by 2050, geothermal plants could produce 100 gigawatts, which would be equivalent to 10 percent of current U.S. electricity capacity.

To be honest, I never think too much about geothermal, because I always thought of it as a niche application. I had no idea the U.S. produced that much geothermal energy. To put the 3,119 geothermal megawatts in perspective, installed wind capacity is about 12,000 megawatts in the U.S., and installed solar PV is about 6,000 megawatts. And to put those numbers in perspective, installed nuclear capacity is 100,000 megawatts, and installed coal capacity is 335,000 megawatts.

9 thoughts on “World’s Largest Producer of Geothermal Electricity”

  1. The little stub I have here from Southern California Edison says that 9% of my “2006 Actual Power MIX” came from geothermal.

    (41% nat gas, 17% nuke, 15% coal, 11% large hydro, 3% wind, 2% biomass & waste, 1% small hydro, 1% solar)

  2. I heard a piece about this on NPR a month or two ago, and one of the points made (IIRC) is that the more geologically active an area is, the greater potential for geothermal electricity generation. Ever since, I’ve been wondering why, for example, the Japanese (or, closer to home, Hawaii) aren’t going into this in a huge way.

    For areas with a good geothermal resource, it seems to provide the biggest benefit of nuclear (i.e., nice stable baseload generation that complements the intermittent renewables like wind/solar/tidal) without any of the drawbacks. And I’d guess that (at least here in the US) a hot-rock geothermal generating plant would be about a zillion times easier to get permitted and built than a new nuclear plant.

  3. Every energy source has its drawbacks. You have to choose which ones are worth it. There are small earthquakes of magnitude between 1 and 2 at The Geysers, CA where PG&E has geothermal plants. I used to think that the earthquakes were natural and came before the geothermal plants and that they were just a sign of how geothermal is often good in geologically active areas. Recently, I think I read that the small earthquakes there are caused by the geothermal plant. They are not big earthquakes. Quarry explosions show up about the same magnitude on the earthquake detectors.

    Switzerland halted a geothermal project after it caused a magnitude 3.4 earthquake. Apparently coal mines can cause quakes too.

  4. Geothermal can provide 10 percent of US electrical power needs? Wow!
    Yes, as with any source, I am sure there are costs, trade-offs. A natural area despoiled etc.
    But keep repeating the mantra: Peak Demand (in relation to fossil oil). Weare there, or nearly.
    There seems to be an ability to produce enough electricity, from a mix of sources, which, over time, can become more earth-friendly, such as wind, solar, geothermal and nuke. RR has posted on the potential of solar, and it is expensive, but much better than freezing in the dark.
    The path forward in the next 100 years seems more clear: We boost our electrical grid steadily, while migrating our fleet of vehicles to PHEVs. It doesn’t strike me as that difficult, and will yield huge benefits in terms of cleaner air (especially in cities).
    Since most fossil oil is used for transportation, this migration to PHEVs will extend by decades our reserves of fossil fuels. (Our reserves of fossil oil are already being extended artifically by the rise of state oilism. Thug states control nearly all the world’s oil. The baboons control the resource, and we have to live with it).
    The good news in this is somewhat boring: No crisis, no earth-shaking upheavals, just reasonable adaptations to more-expensive oil.
    Explain to me why we cannot migrae to PHEVs? It seems very doable.
    Of course, there is always the possibility in 20 years that state oil comapnies become more friendly to development, while demand is falling, and we end up with a glut again somewhere along the line.

  5. There is a very detailed, 67 page report by an Iceland-based investment bank called Glitnir about the potential geothermal market in the U.S.

    The firm is making a big push in the U.S. to finance geothermal projects.

    Go to

    and you can find the report there. You need to register, but all they want is an e-mail address.

  6. GT has a few disadvantages. A biggie is lack of suitable sites. This might be mitigated by using oil drilling technology to create GT sites, but that’s costly. Also GT suffers a bit from poor carnot efficiency vis-a-vis conventional technologies. Other drawbacks including possible sulphur emissions which must be carefully contained, and despoilment of otherwise pristine areas. Possibly the main drawback IMO is that GT is a non-renewable resource, at least on a human timescale. I believe GT amounts to heat-mining the earth’s crust; eventually the rock cools to the point where you cannot usefully extract energy from it, and it won’t reheat again except on geologic timescales. Still, it could help, and like hydro it is capable of producing baseload without the need for an electricity storage solution.

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