Geothermal Energy Factsheet

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Geothermal Resource and Potential

  • Geothermal energy is derived from the natural heat of the earth.1 It exists in both high enthalpy (volcanoes, geysers) and low enthalpy forms (heat stored in rocks in the Earth’s crust). Nearly all heating and cooling applications utilize low enthalpy heat, called ground source heat.2
  • Geothermal energy has two primary applications: heating/cooling and electricity generation.1
  • Ground source heat pumps for heating and cooling use 75% less energy than traditional heating and cooling systems.4
  • The U.S. has tapped less than 0.6% of geothermal electricity resources; the majority can become available with Enhanced Geothermal System technology.5
  • In 2016, there were 3,567 MW of geothermal power plants in operation in the United States—the most of any country—and 1,272 MW of projects in development.6
  • Electricity generated from geothermal power plants is projected to increase from 16.7 billion kWh in 2018 to 65.6 billion kWh in 2050.7,8 In 2016, California, Nevada, Utah, Alaska, and Hawaii were the states with the most installed geothermal energy capacity.6
  • The USA, Indonesia, Philippines, Turkey, New Zealand & Mexico had 73% of global installed geothermal power capacity, in 2018.9

U.S. Geothermal Resources3

at 10 km depth

U.S. Geothermal Resources

Geothermal Technology and Impacts

Direct Use and Heating/Cooling

  • Geothermal (or ground source) heat pumps (GHPs) are the primary method for direct use of geothermal energy. GHPs use the shallow ground as an energy reservoir because it maintains a nearly constant temperature between 50°-60°F (10°–16°C).11
  • GHPs transfer heat from a building to the ground during the cooling season, and from the ground into a building during the heating season.11
  • Direct-use applications include space and district heating, greenhouses, aquaculture, and commercial and industrial processes.12

Geothermal Heat Pump in a Residential Heating Application10

Geothermal Heat Pump in a Residential Heating Application

Electricity Generation

  • Geothermal energy currently accounts for 0.4% of net electricity generation in the United States.7
  • Hydrothermal energy, typically supplied by underground water reservoirs, is a main source of thermal energy used in electricity generation. The water is often pumped as steam to the earth’s surface to spin turbines that generate electricity.13
  • U.S. continues to generate the most geothermal electricity in the world: more than 3.5 gigawatts, mostly in Western states.13
  • Dry steam power plants use steam from a geothermal reservoir and route it directly through turbines, which drive generators to produce electricity.13
  • Flash steam power plants pump hot water under high pressure into a surface tank at much lower pressure. This pressure change causes the water to rapidly “flash” into steam, which is then used to spin a turbine/generator to produce electricity. Flash steam plants are the most common type of geothermal power plants.13
  • Binary cycle power plants feature geothermal water and a working fluid that are confined to separate circulating systems, or “closed loops.” A heat exchanger transfers heat from the water to the working fluid, causing it to “flash” to steam, which then powers the turbine/generator to produce electricity.13
  • An Enhanced Geothermal System (EGS) is a technology under development that could expand the use of geothermal resources to new geographic areas. The EGS concept is to create a subsurface fracture system to increase the permeability of rock and allow for the injection of a heat transfer fluid (typically water). Injected fluid is heated by the rock and returned to the surface to generate electricity.14
  • According to the U.S. Department of Energy, there may be over 100 GW of geothermal electric capacity in the continental U.S., which would account for nearly 10% of current U.S. electricity capacity and be 40 times the current installed geothermal capacity.14

Flash Steam Geothermal Power Plant15

Flash Steam Geothermal Power Plant

Installation, Manufacturing, and Cost

  • The main stages of geothermal power development are resource exploration, drilling, reservoir/plant development, and power generation.16
  • Capital costs for conventional geothermal power plants in the U.S. are approximately $2,500 per installed kilowatt of capacity.17
  • Although the development of geothermal power requires a large capital investment, geothermal has low operating costs and a high capacity factor (ratio of actual power production to production potential).16
  • With tax incentives, geothermal electricity costs an estimated 4.2-6.9¢ per kilowatt-hour (kWh), depending on the type of technology. Without these, costs are 7.8-11.6¢ per kWh.16

Energy Performance and Environmental Impacts

  • Geothermal power plants emit roughly 11 times less carbon dioxide (CO2) per unit of electricity generated than the average U.S. coal power plant.18
  • Binary cycle power plants and flash power plants consume around 0.24-4.21 gallons and 1.59-2.84 gallons of water per kWh, respectively (compared to 15 gallons of water per kWh used by thermoelectric plants in 2015).19,20
  • Each year, U.S. geothermal power offsets the emission of 4.1 million tons of CO2, 80 thousand tons of nitrogen oxides and 110 thousand tons of particulate matter from coal-powered plants.21
  • Current research suggests storing CO2 in geothermal reservoirs may be possible, although the seismic risks of long-term and high-volume geologic carbon sequestration are uncertain.22,23
  • Some geothermal facilities produce solid waste that must be disposed of in approved sites, though some by-products can be recovered and recycled.24

GHG Emissions from Power Generation32

by Life Cycle Stage

GHG Emissions from Power Generation

Solutions and Sustainable Actions

Funding Opportunities

  • There are currently 16 national laboratories and research institutions in the US conducting research into geothermal energy technologies.25
  • The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided up to $364 million in new funding for geothermal research, development, demonstration, and deployment activities.26
  • With a capacity factor of over 90%, geothermal electricity generation could offset coal, natural gas, or nuclear power as baseload supply in the electricity market.17
  • Lawrence Berkeley National Lab estimates that 50% of renewable energy growth in the US can be attributed to state Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards (RPS) that require a certain percentage of electricity be derived from renewable sources.27
  • Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) are sold by renewable energy producers in addition to the electricity they produce; for a few cents per kilowatt hour, consumers can purchase RECs to “offset” their usage and help renewable energy become more competitive.28
  • A federal tax credit for homeowners covers 30% of qualifying geothermal system costs in 2019, stepping down to 22% in 2021.29
  • Across the U.S., over 800 utilities offer “green pricing” programs that provide the ability to purchase renewably generated electricity at a small premium.30
  • Many companies purchase renewable energy as part of their environmental programs. Google, Microsoft, Intel. Equinix, and Wells Fargo were the top five users of renewable energy as of April 2019.31

Steamboat Hills Geothermal Power Plant33

Steamboat Springs, Nevada

Steamboat Hills Geothermal Power Plant

  1. U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) (2019) “Geothermal Energy Basics.”
  2. Banks, D. (2008) An Introduction to Thermogeology: Ground Source Heating and Cooling.
  3. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2006) The Future of Geothermal Energy: Impact of Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) on the United States in the 21st Century.
  4. Geothermal Exchange Organization. (2019) Geothermal Benefits.
  5. U.S. Geological Survey (2008) Assessment of Moderate- and High-Temperature Geothermal Resources of the United States.
  6. Geothermal Energy Association (2016)  Annual US & Global Geothermal Power Production Report.
  7. Energy Information Administration (EIA) (2019) Monthly Energy Review May 2019.
  8. EIA (2019) Annual Energy Outlook 2019.
  9. International Renewable Energy Agency (2019) Dashboard - Capacity and Generation
  10. Adapted from Geothermal Exchange Organization, Inc. (2010) Home Heating with GeoExchange.
  11. U.S. DOE, NREL (2019) “Geothermal Heat Pump Basics.”
  12. U.S. EPA (2019) Geothermal Heating and Cooling Technologies
  13. U.S. DOE, EERE, Geothermal Technologies Office (2012) “Electricity Generation.”
  14. U.S. DOE, EERE, Geothermal Technologies Office (2016) “How an Enhanced Geothermal System Works.”
  15. U.S. DOE, Idaho National Laboratory (2010) “What is Geothermal Energy?”
  16. U.S. DOE, NREL (2009) 2008 Geothermal Technologies Market Report.
  17. U.S. DOE, EERE, Geothermal Technologies Office (2013) “Geothermal FAQs.”
  18. Geothermal Energy Association (2014) Geothermal Basics - Environmental Benefits.
  19. U.S. DOE EERE (2015) Water Efficient Energy Production for Geothermal Resources.
  20. Dieter, C., et al. (2018) “Estimated use of water in the United States in 2015.” U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1441.
  21. U.S. DOE EERE (2019) Geothermal Power Plants - Meeting Clean Air Standards.
  22. U.S. DOE, EERE, Geothermal Technologies Office (2008) Multi-Year Research and Development Plan: 2009 - 2015 with program activities to 2025.
  23. Hitzman, M., et al. (2012) Induced Seismicity Potential in Energy Technologies. National Academies Press.
  24. U.S. DOE, EERE (2004) Buried Treasure: The Environmental, Economic, and Employment Benefits of Geothermal Energy.
  25. U.S. DOE, EERE, “Geothermal Research and Development Programs”
  26. U.S. DOE, EERE, Geothermal Technologies Office (2012) Geothermal Technologies Program Annual Peer Review.
  27. Barbose, G. (2018) US Renewable Portfolio Standards: 2018 Annual Status Report.
  28. U.S. DOE, NREL (2015) “Renewable Electricity: How do you know you are using it?”
  29. Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (2019) “Federal Tax Credits for Residential Renewable Energy.”
  30. Personal Communication, Eric O’Shaughnessy, Energy Analyst, NREL, 6/22/17.
  31. U.S. EPA (2019) “Green Power Partnership: National Top 100.”
  32. U.S. DOE, Argonne National Laboratory (2010) Life Cycle Analysis Results of Geothermal Systems in Comparison to Other Power Systems.
  33. Photo courtesy of National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Cite as: 
Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan. 2019. "Geothermal Energy Factsheet." Pub. No. CSS10-10.