Is Geothermal The Easy Energy Answer?

The threat of earthquakes and volcanoes can make the Pacific Ring of Fire a perilous place. But the bubbling and gurgling under the earth’s crust in that zone has its potential advantages as well, according to author Lester R. Brown. In “Plan B: 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization” (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), Brown argues that subsurface heat is a vast and largely untapped source of energy and heat, particularly in the United States, Japan, China and Indonesia.

“With a conservatively estimated potential in the United States and Japan alone of 240,000 megawatts of generation,” Brown writes, “it is easy to envisage a world with thousands of geothermal power plants generating some 200,000 megawatts of electricity by 2020. For direct use of geothermal heat, the 2020 Plan B goal is 500,000 thermal megawatts.”

PlanB Geothermal

image via Earth Policy Institute

That’s a big leap; today, geothermal accounts for a mere 10,700 megawatts of worldwide electricity production, with an annual growth rate of just 3 percent over the past decade. Still, Brown says that can change in a big way with investment in existing technologies as well as new fracking techniques borrowed from the oil and gas industries. He points to an MIT study that says geothermal, if fully exploited, could meet all U.S. energy needs—2,000 times over.

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Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.