WASHINGTON — Geothermal power production grew in the United States by 5 percent last year, with Utah ranked No. 3 in the country for its generation of power by tapping super-heated water thousands of feet underground.
Highlights of geothermal power's growth, the number of projects in development and challenges in developing the renewable energy were detailed in an industry briefing Tuesday in Washington.
The United States is the No. 1 producer of geothermal power in the world, with 3,386 megawatts of installed capacity, according to numbers released by the Geothermal Energy Association. Seven new projects came online last year, including the first hybrid solar-geothermal plant.
Across the country, 175 geothermal projects are in development, and as many as 14 more plants could be operational this year if they meet construction schedules.
California remains the top producer of geothermal energy, with 2,732.2 megawatts of installed capacity, and 33 projects in the wings. That state's pursuit of geothermal energy is in part fueled by the mandate it receive 33 percent of its power from renewable energy sources by 2020.
Nevada is next at 517 megawatts of installed capacity, followed by Utah at 48 megawatts. The majority of that comes from Rocky Mountain Power's Blundell plant, with power that stays in Utah.
"We actually really like geothermal energy," said Samantha Mary Julian, director of the Utah Office of Energy Development. "It is truly a clean, renewable energy and it has a unique quality that the others do not. It is a base power that goes all the time, not just when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. It's just a clean product."
The report notes that Utah has 19 projects on the table with the potential to develop between 260 and 280 megawatts of power — and a handful of more prospects in the very early stages.
Enel North America's Cove Fort plant is the closest to coming on line, with construction that began in May of 2012. The company says the new plant is expected to enter service by the end of this year, with the $126 million project adding 25 megawatts of installed capacity to Utah's geothermal power grid.
Jeff Barrett, the infrastructure and incentives manager with the state energy development office, said Enel's Cove Fort plant will boost Utah's production capacity by 50 percent and Julian said Utahs could one day follow only California in geothermal production.
That is driven in part by Utah's Black Rock Desert, a 620-square-mile geothermal basin that has has the potential to deliver several hundred megawatts of geothermal power for years at a large scale — with an hour of energy estimated to cost just 10 cents at the wholesale price.
Utah is one of eight states where geothermal power is tapped, but the association notes that an overwhelming majority of new projects — 84 percent — are happening in states where development has not occurred before. Those developments are taking aim at states like Colorado, Texas and North Dakota, despite challenges that include a long permitting process and difficulty funding research and development.
"To achieve even more dramatic growth, geothermal power needs continue and predictable federal incentives are needed to spur investors to undertake the risk of investing in new geothermal projects," said the association's executive director, Karl Gawell.
"Governments need to cut the time it takes to manage leasing and permitting — it should not take seven or more years to complete a project."
The industry and association, too, are working to help the public become better educated about the mechanics of producing geothermal energy.
That process is far simpler in comparison to solar energy production, but it becomes a matter of visibility.
"People walk outside on a nice sunny day and see this potential for power," said Gawell. "Yet the Earth is just as much this big ubiquitous energy source."
Geothermal power accounts for about a third of a percent of the total installed operating capacity in the United States, according to the association and represented 1 percent of the renewable energy projects that came online in 2012.
In Utah, geothermal energy makes up .03 percent of the power generation in the state.