What’s geothermal again?

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October 29, 2009

By Elisa Wood

Some green energy sources seem to have charisma; others struggle for public attention with little success.

Solar energy is an “it” technology, as evidenced once again by the tremendous participation in the annual Solar Power International conference in Anaheim, California this week (Oct. 27-29). Twice as many companies (945) are displaying their wares in the Expo Hall this year, despite the still lagging economy. And overall attendance is expected to break last year’s record, itself a record breaker.

Even on Main Street, ask pretty much anyone and they know solar, probably like it, and see it as an economy builder.

Ask the same people about geothermal heat pumps and there is a good chance they won’t know what you’re talking about. Or they may give an answer that confuses the appliances with geothermal geyser power plants.  For whatever reason, the concept of extracting heat from the ground has yet to capture the public or political imagination as much as extracting it from the sun.

Yet, geothermal heat pumps could have a significant impact on our energy supply. They can be installed pretty much anywhere there is a building. And if we used them to maximum potential in the United States, we could avoid building 91-105 gigawatts of generation, nearly half of the new power we will need in 2030, according to the US Department of Energy.

Homeowners who consider then discard the idea often cite the high upfront installation costs. Yet the same argument could easily be made about solar photovoltaic panels. So why is geothermal an also ran technology?

One problem, according to the DOE, is that the heat pump industry needs to collect and disseminate more solid data on heat pumps. Work underway by the Chewonki Foundation, an educational institute in Maine, moves in this direction. With a grant from the Maine Public Utilities Commission, Chewonki is monitoring and measuring the performance of a newly installed heat pump system at its 11,000 square-foot meeting hall. The state is looking for an alternative to heating buildings with oil, a relatively common fuel in Maine. Geothermal heat pumps may prove to be that alternative. http://www.onsetcomp.com/resources/white_papers

This is not to imply that the geothermal heat pump industry is not growing. To the contrary, US shipments of geothermal heat pumps grew 40 percent last year, according to a report released this month by the Energy Information Administration. http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/solar.renewables/page/ghpsurvey/geothermalrpt.pdf. The industry is very much a domestic jobs builder. Most of the systems shipped in the US last year where manufactured here — 416,019 tons – with the remaining 86 tons from China. Sixteen percent of US product was exported.

Still, the geothermal heat pump industry is a small one, representing $319 million last year. Compare this to a domestic solar PV cell and module market of $1.72 billion in 2007 (2008 figures are not yet available from EIA).

Of course, it was just a few years ago that solar conferences were drawing hundreds, not tens of thousands of people, as Solar Power International does now. So who knows?  Perhaps it’s not far-fetched to imagine the term” geothermal” rolling off the tongue of the average consumer, as easily as “solar” does today.

Visit Elisa Wood at http://www.realenergywriters.com/ and pick up her free Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter.

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of MicrogridKnowledge.com. She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.