US geothermal lags behind while Kenya sprints ahead

According to a new report from the Geothermal Energy Association, Kenya is set to stake out turf as the global geothermal leader with about 1,000 megawatts currently under development, more than one-fourth of which is already under construction. Meanwhile, despite…

According to a new report from the Geothermal Energy Association, Kenya is set to stake out turf as the global geothermal leader with about 1,000 megawatts currently under development, more than one-fourth of which is already under construction. Meanwhile, despite its vast geothermal resources the US is still cheering from the sidelines and doesn’t even rate a mention in the report’s top five.

It’s not all bad news for the home team, though. The US geothermal industry, which has benefited significantly from government-supported R&D, is still growing thanks to global demand for US technology overseas. Wait for it…we built this!
Kenya Geothermal Is Booming
The Geothermal Energy Association (GEA) report cites government support as the key factor in Kenya’s booming geothermal sector, and when you consider the demand for US technology, it’s logical to assume that at least some US companies are growing revenue as a result.

Kenya geyser (cropped) by Valentina Storti.

That is in fact the case, as demonstrated by the company TAS Energy. Steve Hummel, director of renewable resources for the company, sums up the ripple effect nicely:
Established and emerging international markets including Africa, Turkey, Latin America, Indonesia, and the Philippines present a tremendous opportunity for the United States to export renewable technology, professional expertise, capital finance, and geothermal support services to the needs of this global industry. These key foreign markets have played a significant role in TAS Energy’s growth over the past three years…
Where Is All The US Geothermal Hiding?
As the US has become a leading exporter and export-enabler of fossil fuels including coal and tar sands derived petroleum as well as natural gas and conventional petroleum, it’s nice to know that our renewable energy technology exports are providing a partial counterbalance.
In fact, at a GEA trade show and conference last week, there was standing room only at a presentation on ways to increase US geothermal technology exports.
However, a significant expansion of the US geothermal sector would be a nice thing, too. The US is an acknowledged global leader in geothermal potential, as underscored by a recent Google geothermal survey revealing about three million megawatts in hand.
According to GEA Executive Director Karl Gawell, utility scale geothermal plants would help accelerate the shutdown of aging coal power plants by providing stability to complement wind and solar energy generation and storage.
The market will turn around as geothermal’s full value to the grid is recognized. Its baseload capacity makes it valuable for replacing retiring fossil fuel facilities, and its ability to provide flexible support will add to power system reliability.
In effect, what Gawell seems to be saying is that geothermal is going to provide another nail for the domestic coal power plant coffin, which is already reeling under the blows from low cost natural gas. Of course, that would exert even more pressure on the coal export market, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.
With the era of super-cheap natural gas in the US coming to an end (the growing export market is already playing a role there), it’s also possible that geothermal would beat out natural gas as the “cleaner” fuel of choice for US utilities.
US Army To The Geothermal Rescue
The last time we caught up with the geothermal sector was in 2011, when we profiled a new 15 megawatt geothermal power plant in Nevada, built by Ormat Technologies.
Ormat’s plant was the only utility scale geothermal power plant to go online  all that year in the US, which seems a pretty pathetic pace considering the vast resources at hand. However, the US geothermal bottleneck looks to break wide open sooner rather than later, thanks to the US Department of Defense.
As part of a massive $7 billion renewable energy buy that also includes wind, solar and biomass, earlier this year the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) awarded contracts to Constellation NewEnergy, ECC Renewables, Enel Green Power North America, LTC Federal, and Siemens Government Technologies.

The geothermal facilities will be built on Department of Defense properties under power purchase agreements, in which DoD pays no money up front (the $7 billion represents the value of the energy, not a brick-and-mortar investment by US taxpayers).
If that program goes well, look for the military’s geothermal ventures to spill over into the civilian sector. According to a USACE estimate, there are enough geothermal resources under DoD lands to provide for all of the agency’s electricity needs with plenty left over for the civilian grid, too.
DoD has already been gearing up for a big push into geothermal, Fort Hood and Fort Drum being a couple of examples.
As for government support for geothermal R&D, our taxpayer dollars have gone to core technologies including advanced drills (ironically, adopted by the oil and gas industry for fracking) among many other geothermal research projects.