Geothermal Energy:

Obstacles and Uncertainties Impede Its Widespread Use

EMD-80-36: Published: Jan 18, 1980. Publicly Released: Jan 18, 1980.

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Theoretically, geothermal resources are a virtually inexhaustible energy source. Although the government has spent nearly $500 million over the past 5 years, development and use of these resources has proceeded slowly. The Department of Energy (DOE) has the lead responsibility for the federal geothermal program and has tried to stimulate private industry and local public power authorities to commercialize this energy for the production of electricity or direct heat. Private industry's efforts have primarily focused on hydrothermal steam resources, while it has made only limited efforts to develop other geothermal resources such as high-temperature, hot-water resources due to high costs, and financial and technical risks.

The widely varying obstacles and uncertainties which make geothermal development costly and risky include: (1) a lack of reliable detailed resource information; (2) a lack of proven technology for defining, extracting, and using most of the recoverable resources for electric applications; (3) complexities of administrative and regulatory requirements for development; and (4) insufficient knowledge of possible environmental impacts and control technology. The lack of a formal DOE management system for setting priorities among projects has resulted in an unsatisfactory project selection process. Delays in issuing implementing regulations have also hindered geothermal development and use, with some regulations having taken as long as 3 years to develop and use. Several bills have been introduced in the 96th Congress which would provide additional initiatives and incentives for development, and as the geothermal development program evolves, more legislative changes can be expected. However, it may be years before any of the benefits of legislation can be realized if agencies take as long to issue implementing regulations as they have in the past.

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