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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should: (1) establish a formal mechanism for setting priorities among research, development, and demonstration projects to ensure that proposed projects are routinely and uniformly evaluated and that priority attention is given to projects aimed at resolving the major uncertainties and obstacles to widespread geothermal use in the shortest possible timeframe; (2) place greater emphasis on the timely issuance of implementing regulations and, as Chairman of the Interagency Geothermal Coordinating Council, systematically monitor each agency's progress in developing regulations and adopt a strong leadership role in ensuring that regulations implementing changes to the geothermal program are developed and issued in a timely manner; and (3) at the time new federal initiatives and incentives aimed at accelerating the development and use of geothermal energy are proposed, either by the administration or by Congress, determine the impact each could have on all phases of geothermal development and the estimated annual costs involved and submit each analysis to the appropriate Congressional committees for their use during consideration of those initiatives and incentives.

    Agency Affected:

  2. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should: (1) follow-up on the development of those regulations related to the leasing of federal lands which were or have been in process for several years to identify and correct the problem and ensure that regulations are issued as soon as possible; and (2) develop an internal system for monitoring the Department of the Interior's efforts to develop regulations relative to geothermal energy with the system providing checkpoints that would alter the Secretary when such efforts are approaching 1 year in their development or are otherwise being delayed.

    Agency Affected:


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