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An older man with blue baseball camp and dark suit stands outside with snowy peaks in the background.
Geologist Fred Henderson near Mount Princeton Hot Springs in Chaffee County, where he has been exploring geothermal energy development for years, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

A year after announcing his ambitious bipartisan Heat Beneath Our Feet initiative focusing on geothermal energy development in the West, Gov. Jared Polis and five other Western governors met this week to discuss progress and how to begin turning 12 months of research and discovery into strategies to expand geothermal technologies across the U.S. 

David Turk, the secretary of the Department of Energy and one of the experts at Monday’s discussion, said 95% of the United States’ geothermal potential lies beneath the Western states of Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and California. The problem is developing the infrastructure needed to convert the heat into electricity and get the power to the grid, Turk said.

The U.S. today produces 25% of the world’s geothermal energy, or 3.7 gigawatts, but that’s just a fraction of what the country is capable of producing, Turk added. Estimates have the number at 5,000 gigawatts, but Turk said, “if we develop these reserves without the infrastructure to transmit, it does us no good. Right now, we’re building out only 1% of our transmission capabilities and we need to build out like we never have in this country.” 

Claudio Berti, Idaho State Geologist, identified the West’s three major “geological accidents” responsible for the region’s abundance of robust geothermal systems: the Great Basin, which where formations including highly fractured rock run along fault zones throughout Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Oregon and California; the sliding San Andreas fault, which crosses California from the Salton Sea in the south to Cape Mendocino in the north; and “the big anomaly of Yellowstone” — essentially a gigantic geothermal zone with energy-producing potential but currently off-limits to development due to Department of Interior regulations — “and the way it affects both Wyoming and Idaho.” 

A map showing the concentration geothermal resources in the West. (American Geosciences Institute graphic)

Following Polis’ announcement of the Heat Beneath Our Feet initiative last year, his team began engaging with over 500 stakeholders through online surveys, tours, work sessions and a webinar series focused on geothermal development. From these came a comprehensive report, released during this week’s conference, showing progress states have made in examining opportunities for and barriers to the accelerated development and deployment of geothermal energy technologies across the West. 

Several case studies show geothermal’s effectiveness in powering the grid. California has two of the largest geothermal reservoirs in the United States, the Salton Sea resource area and the Geysers, between Lake, Mendocino and Sonoma counties, with an estimated generation capability of 2,200 megawatts and 1,800 megawatts, respectively. In Idaho, Boise is already powered entirely by geothermal energy. Nevada has 26 operating geothermal plants capable of generating 827 megawatts of power collectively in any given hour. And while Colorado currently has no geothermal electrical power generating facilities, the state geological survey says a number of companies are actively looking at the potential for generating geothermal electricity in several regions.

The Heat Beneath Our Feet report makes recommendations for furthering Polis’ mission with things like improving resource assessment and data collection, mitigating risk in drilling and exploration, speeding up the permitting process for geothermal projects, collaborating with tribes and communities before and during projects, and forging workforce and contractor “ecosystems” to continue developing the resource and marketing it to emerging geothermal markets. 

The 2023 analysis concluded that the country potentially has 90.5 gigawatts of geothermal-derived electricity that could be deployed by 2050. This is more capacity than the entire U.S. Navy’s nuclear fleet in 2021, and enough to power an estimated 28 million homes and cover 23% of national residential demand. 

Sarah Jewett, vice president of strategy for Texas-based Fervo Energy, a geothermal development company, was also on the Monday panel. She said there is “a huge, huge, huge runway to massively increase the participation of geothermal on the grid in the U.S.” and that Fervo is committed to helping the Department of Energy achieve that participation.

In 2021, Fervo partnered with Google, which Polis called a “big presence” in Boulder, on a first-of-its-kind next-generation geothermal project designed to add carbon-free energy to the electric grid serving its data centers and infrastructure in Nevada.

Jewett said through that project and others, Fervo has determined American geothermal consumers could pay $59 per megawatt hour to power their homes with the clean, renewable energy source, a price Polis called the price “very competitive” with other renewable energy sources like wind, solar and hydro.

Artificial intelligence advancement through ChatGPT was another big topic at the conference and one the Google-Fervo partnership will rely on. The two are developing AI and machine learning that could boost the productivity of next-gen geothermal and make it more effective at responding to demand while filling in the gaps left by variable renewable energy sources, Google says. 

The WGA conference ended Wednesday with Polis passing the chair position to Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican, and the two signing a memorandum of understanding related to the direct air carbon-capture industry. Gordon says his chair initiative for the next year will focus on advancing carbon-capture technology to aid decarbonization efforts in the West

“This bipartisan and interstate agreement shows how our creative, solutions-oriented workforce and businesses can achieve real world success for the benefit of our states, our region, and our nation,” Polis said. “I welcome this continued collaboration across state lines.” 

Tracy Ross writes about the intersection of people and the natural world, industry, social justice and rural life from the perspective of someone who grew up in rural Idaho, lived in the Alaskan bush, reported in regions from Iran to Ecuador...