How to Make Geothermal Energy Affordable
Geothermal heating offers an attractive alternative to traditional fossil fuels. Not only does the price per kilowatt rival that of coal, but geothermal heating also creates significantly less harmful greenhouse gas emissions. The main drawback to this eco-friendly technology is the substantial startup costs of installing the appropriate infrastructure to harness the Earth’s energy.
The initial startup costs are typically what dissuade potential geothermal heating users from implementing the technology. Fortunately, new initiatives are underway which, over time, may make geothermal heating a more affordable and realistic option for multiple consumers.
Encourage Government Investments in Geothermal Research
For years, proponents of geothermal heating encouraged the government to invest more money into geothermal heating research to figure out more affordable and efficient ways to harness the Earth’s natural energy. Recently, the government responded and decided to invest approximately $18 million in geothermal heating research. This funding is primarily being used in pilot studies with existing geothermal technology and researching new methods of using Earth’s energy.
One such research route that could make geothermal heating more accessible and potentially more affordable to a broader range of citizens is the hot, dry rock approach. Historically, the Earth’s natural energy was harvested by using steam or heated water already present underground. One drawback to this method is that unless the resources are carefully managed, they may be depleted early due to improper or overuse.
Hot, dry rock technology involves injecting water from above ground beneath the Earth’s surface into rock formations that are heated naturally. This water can then be converted into steam to drive turbines or heat homes and office buildings. Since the water comes from above ground, the risk of depleting the geothermal resource is decreased. It also potentially increases the number of resources available, as areas without natural hot water formations can still use geothermal energy.
Install Geothermal Heating on a Larger Scale
The average cost of installing geothermal heating in a private home ranges from $20,000 to $25,000 and requires an available plot of land nearly twice the size of the home to be heated. Despite these statistics, the initial investment can pay off in as little as 10 years. On average, most homeowners can’t afford to invest a down payment into making their home eco-friendlier.
Energy companies specializing in geothermal technology could instead work with neighborhoods to install geothermal loops that would serve multiple homes or entire communities and make geothermal heating affordable. This would reduce the overall construction cost, and homeowners could work with the companies to pay back installation fees over time as part of their monthly utility bill. This model is already successfully being employed in Canada, where over 40 percent of the residential heating systems are being upgraded to geothermal heat.
Most utility companies in the United States already employ this type of billing method. Residents and corporations are charged a monthly fee that depends on how much electricity, water or natural gas they use. Implementing a similar service for geothermal heating will ultimately make it affordable and accessible to a wider range of people.
Additionally, more experienced contractors will likely be able to complete geothermal construction projects in a shorter time period with fewer resources, which in turn will lead to reduced construction costs. Communities will then benefit from skilled laborers installing their geothermal systems and reduce the risk of errors.
Develop Better Technology for Locating Geothermal Resources
Only 13 states have known geothermal resources that are deemed suitable for energy generation. This is mainly because geothermal heating resources are underground and not easily identified without drilling technology. New investments in underground exploration or geothermal identification may lead to the discovery of additional resources, which in turn can increase the demand for geothermal energy.
Government subsidies alone aren’t enough to drive the price of geothermal heating into the affordable range for the majority the United States population. Private companies and the government need to continue research in geothermal technologies to develop more efficient methods of tapping into the Earth’s natural heating resource. Over time, larger-scale development of geothermal heating infrastructure may make this energy an affordable option for everyone.
About the author
Jane Marsh is the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co. She covers topics related to climate policy, sustainability, renewable energy and more.