Thinking Tech

Geothermal gives West a clean energy advantage

Posting in Energy

The real answer to getting the most from the West's geothermal abundance is to make that energy portable somehow. The two best-known ways of doing that are to turn it into hydrogen or ammonia, but that takes water, and the West is water-poor.

Those of us in the East marvel at the ambitions of California and other western states, when it comes to alternative energy.

Do they care more or do they have a secret weapon?

They have a secret weapon.

The Department of Energy produced this chart, for kids, showing just what it is. It shows the amount of easily-available geothermal energy across the U.S.

In this case red is good, green is bad. The red on the map is in the West, especially Nevada, Oregon, Idaho and Arizona. The worst places for this energy are in the Southeast, including my hometown of Atlanta.

Getting that energy out is pretty simple once you find it.

In a typical dry steam plant a well pumps water deep underground. Hotter water comes up through a nearby production well. The two wells are recycling the same water. The production well runs its hot water through a turbine, which in turn powers a generator.

There are only about 50 public geothermal plants right now, with 90% of the energy coming from California. In addition many individual businesses are building their own plants. A Reno gambling hall just agreed to build its own $8 million power plant. Other local businesses are also looking to this investment.

Thanks to geothermal energy California can be very aggressive in its estimates of renewable energy growth, and all the western states have a substantial economic advantage.

The question is what can they do with it.

It costs a lot of money to transport energy. In a power line you lose a lot of it to friction, and there are environmental costs that some environmentalists find unbearable.

So the real answer to getting the most from the West's geothermal abundance is to make that energy portable somehow. The two best-known ways of doing that are to turn it into hydrogen or ammonia, but the former takes water, and the West is water-poor.

But if you can answer that question, what we think of as Texas is moving north and west.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure