In a recent post on ground source heat pumps, I purposely used a photo of a geothermal installation in Iceland to make the point that geothermal energy was a very different thing. Many complained that I obviously didn't know what I was talking about ("The big clue starts with the picture at the top which is NOT a geothermal heat pump system.") Well, duh — that was the whole point. Geothermal power is a very different thing and a very important source of renewable energy.

With true geothermal energy systems, the heat of the Earth's interior is used to make steam, which drives turbines, just like coal or nuclear plants do. This heat is close enough to tap at geologic faults, so the hot spots are along the Pacific rim and Iceland, the geothermal capital of the world. Almost every building in Iceland is heated by hot water, and all the country's electricity is made using geothermal steam. There is so much of it that there is talk of building a multibillion dollar submarine cable to Scotland. Meanwhile, the United States has 3,500 megawatts of installed geothermal electrical power, about 30 percent of the world's supply. It could have a lot more.

And thanks to the drop in the price of oil, now might be a good time to drill, baby, drill for geothermal energy. According to Bloomberg, drillers are parking rigs as oil prices collapse and have laid off thousands of workers. According to Reuters, "Oil drilling in the United States will continue to fall in the first half of this year, and could even halve, according to major oil service companies looking to past slowdowns as a guide."

North of the border in Alberta, Canada's oil powerhouse, they are trying to put those drills and workers to work on geothermal. According to Corporate Knights, it's a big opportunity, a silver lining for the geothermal industry. The head of the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association (CanGEA), Alison Thompson, is teaching drillers how to adapt oil technology to geothermal drilling.

"These drilling rig operators are selling their services right now at half the price," said Thompson. "So this is a prime opportunity for us to be more cost-competitive, but to also get out-of-work people back to work."
Tyler Hamilton of Corporate Knights notes that it's tough to find drillers when the times are good in the oil patch; that's where the big money is. However it's a very different market right now.
“It’s just such a wonderful opportunity to have some cost decreases in our own industry,” Thompson said. “Now, when they find themselves out of work, we’re welcoming them with open arms.”
Tech transfer from the oil industry is actually happening in the geothermal world; Norway's Statoil is drilling for geothermal in Iceland, and Chevron is a big player in geothermal, although it recently pulled back because, well, nothing is as profitable as oil, or at least wasn't last year. 

geothermal sites in U.S.

Red is hot, hot hot! (Photo: U.S. Energy information agency)

According to an MIT study of Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS), geothermal energy could change the whole energy picture in America.

Geothermal energy from EGS represents a large, indigenous resource that can provide base-load electric power and heat at a level that can have a major impact on the United States, while incurring minimal environmental impacts. With a reasonable investment in R&D, EGS could provide 100 GWe or more of cost­competitive generating capacity in the next 50 years. Further, EGS provides a secure source of power for the long term that would help protect America against economic instabilities resulting from fuel price fluctuations or supply disruptions. 
Stanford economist Paul Romer noted in 2004 that "a crisis is a terrible thing to waste." The oil drilling industry and its workers are certainly having a crisis right now. Why not put them to work on the real geothermal energy right now?

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Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.