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Boiling Point: High Hopes for Geothermal Energy

Boiling Point: High Hopes for Geothermal EnergyGeothermal is boiling hot these days. Wind and solar might even want to watch out.

The industry is adding 144 geothermal power plants in 14 states, says Karl Gawell, executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association. That’s up from 121 projects on the books last March and a 73% increase from the 83 projects underway two years ago.

“We’ve added 200 megawatts in the last year,” said Mr. Gawell, during a stop at The Wall Street Journal’s New York office on Wednesday ahead of the industry’s big finance forum today. “Compared to wind, it’s not much. But it is a lot for a small industry with only 3,000 installed megawatts.”

One big shot in the arm: The federal stimulus, which is chanelling $400 million to the geothermal industry in the form of tax incentives and cash grants. The trade group has seen member ship swell to about 150 from just 30 members five years ago.

Another big key: Technology. Geothermal companies are developing new technologies that allow lower-temperature water in the earth’s core to be turned into geothermal energy. That makes development possible in more place, putting states such as Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana on the map in addition to traditional geothermal heartlands such as California.

Geothermal’s potential, thanks to advanced technologies, could be huge. The U.S. Geological Survey notes about 6,000 megawatts of discovered geothermal supplies (that’s like six nuclear power plants), with undiscovered potential between 8,000 and 73,000 megawatts. New technology could—theoretically—open the door to a whopping 800,000 megawatts.

Geothermal is renewable energy, like wind and solar power—but with two big advantages: It provides continuous, baseload power, not just when the wind blows or the sun shines, and it is cheaper than wind or solar power.

“It’s being rediscovered in the U.S.,” Mr. Gawell says. While the U.S. is currently the world leader, the geothermal industry today is where the wind-power industry was 20 or 30 years ago, he says.

And given the role that big corporates—such as General Electric and Siemens—played in the explosion of the wind industry, the logical question is, when will big companies pile into geothermal? GE has been showing up at geothermal meetings lately, Mr. Gawell says, and GE Energy Financial Services finances some geothermal investments.

By Paul GladerShare 

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