White House seeks to cut geothermal research funds

LOS ANGELES Tue Mar 13, 2007 2:11pm EDT

The Leathers geothermal power plant in Calipatria, California in an undated photo courtesy of the Department of Energy. The Bush administration wants to eliminate federal support for geothermal power just as many U.S. states are looking to cut greenhouse gas emissions and raise renewable power output. REUTERS/Department of Energy/Handout

The Leathers geothermal power plant in Calipatria, California in an undated photo courtesy of the Department of Energy. The Bush administration wants to eliminate federal support for geothermal power just as many U.S. states are looking to cut greenhouse gas emissions and raise renewable power output.

Credit: Reuters/Department of Energy/Handout

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Bush administration wants to eliminate federal support for geothermal power just as many U.S. states are looking to cut greenhouse gas emissions and raise renewable power output.

The move has angered scientists who say there is enough hot water underground to meet all U.S. electricity needs without greenhouse gas emissions.

"The Department of Energy has not requested funds for geothermal research in our fiscal-year 2008 budget," said Christina Kielich, a spokeswoman for the Department of Energy. "Geothermal is a mature technology. Our focus is on breakthrough energy research and development."

The administration of George W. Bush has made renewable energy a priority as it seeks to wean the United States off foreign oil, but it emphasizes use of biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel for vehicles and nuclear research for electricity.

"In spite of its enormous potential, the geothermal option for the United States has been largely ignored," a recent study led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said.

Last year, the DOE requested no funding for geothermal for the 2007 fiscal year, after funding averaged about $26 million over the previous six years, but Congress restored $5 million. This year, the DOE's $24.3 billion budget request includes a 38 percent federal spending increase for nuclear power, but nothing for geothermal.

Advocates say they hope Congress can restore at least $25 million in funding to keep geothermal research on track.

"It's too early to pick our resources. We need them all," said Karl Gawell, executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association.

New geothermal power projects by 2050 could provide 100,000 megawatts of electricity -- enough to power about 80 million U.S. homes, or as much as U.S. nuclear power plants make today, the MIT study said.

But U.S. geothermal development will need $300 million to $400 million over 15 years to make this type of power competitive versus other forms of power generation, the study said.

The big hurdle for geothermal power is finding out where the hot water is and developing better ways to drill for it. Geothermal power plants use steam or water from underground to turn turbines to create electricity.

Recreational hot springs across the United States are examples of where geothermal is easy to access. To be a viable power generator, hot water a mile or more underground has to be developed, said Gawell of the Geothermal Energy Association.

Leland "Roy" Mink, who until last October was geothermal program director at the DOE, said he thinks the White House's waning interest in geothermal is a mistake. He said he left the DOE when he saw the Department was cutting funding.

"It's far from a mature technology," said Mink, who is now working on a geothermal project in Idaho. "There's a lot to do. For starters, we need to develop drill bits that last longer. It's a hostile environment down there."

While its industry is largely undeveloped, the United States is still the largest producer of geothermal electricity in the world. U.S. geothermal power generation in 2005 was 0.36 percent of national power generation and geothermal capacity is rated at 2,828 megawatts, with almost all in California, according to the Geothermal Energy Association.