Executive Summary

Geothermal is America's untapped energy giant.

Geothermal energy is a renewable and diverse solution for the United States—providing reliable and flexible electricity generation and delivering unique technology solutions to America's heating and cooling demands. Geothermal resources can be found nationwide, are "always on," and represent vast domestic energy potential. Only a fraction of this potential has been realized due to technical and non-technical barriers that constrain industry growth.

The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Geothermal Technologies Office (GTO) engaged in a multiyear research collaboration among national laboratories, industry experts, and academia to identify a vision for growth of the domestic geothermal industry across a range of geothermal energy types. The effort assessed opportunities to expand geothermal energy deployment by improving technologies, reducing costs, and mitigating barriers. The analysis also assessed the economic benefits to the U.S. geothermal industry and the potential environmental impacts of increased deployment—including jobs, consumer energy prices, water use, and air quality—and investigated opportunities for desalination, mineral recovery, and hybridization with other energy technologies for greater efficiencies and lower costs.

The GeoVision analysis culminated in this report, GeoVision: Harnessing the Heat Beneath Our Feet. In addition to summarizing analytical results about geothermal energy opportunities, the report includes a Roadmap of actionable items that can achieve the outcomes of the analysis. The GeoVision Roadmap is a comprehensive call to action to encourage and guide stakeholders toward the shared goal of realizing the deployment levels and resulting benefits identified in the GeoVision analysis.

The GeoVision analysis demonstrates the unique characteristics of geothermal energy and its unrealized potential, including:

  • Constant and secure renewable electric power generation with flexible and load-following capabilities that provide essential services contributing to grid stability and resiliency
  • Nationwide energy applications through unique capabilities in electricity generation, as well as residential, commercial, and district heating and cooling
  • Commercial technologies that are ready to deploy, augmented by developing technologies with vast potential for increased electricity generation and direct-use applications
  • Job impacts in both the manufacturing and geothermal sectors
  • Revenue potential for federal, state, and local stakeholders, as well as royalty potential for leaseholders.

The GeoVision analysis used a suite of modeling tools and scenarios to evaluate the performance of geothermal technologies relative to other energy technologies. The analyses included evaluating the potential role of existing and future geothermal deployment in both the electric sector and the heating and cooling sector. In the electric sector, the analysis considered existing conventional (hydrothermal) geothermal resources as well as unconventional geothermal resources, such as enhanced geothermal systems, or EGS. In the heating and cooling sector, the analysis modeled geothermal heat pumps (GHPs, which are also known as ground-source heat pumps), and district-heating systems (using both conventional and EGS resources).

By evaluating scenarios for increased deployment of geothermal energy, the GeoVision analysis provides a foundation to maintain and advance the nation's position as a leader in geothermal energy applications and technology innovation. The models used prevailing and potential future technology assumptions under existing and proposed state and federal policy scenarios. The analysis does not assume or create any previously unintroduced policies; it considers only policies that are in force or have been introduced.

The GeoVision analysis provides a comprehensive assessment of the state of geothermal energy, and identifies deployment opportunities and pathways for targeted action that could achieve a shared vision for industry growth.

Key findings of the GeoVision analysis:

Technology improvements could reduce costs and increase geothermal electric power deployment.

Improving the tools, technologies, and methodologies used to explore, discover, access, and manage geothermal resources would reduce costs and risks associated with geothermal developments. These reductions could increase geothermal power generation nearly 26-fold from today, representing 60 gigawatts-electric (GWe) of always-on, flexible electricity-generation capacity by 2050. This capacity makes up 3.7% of total U.S. installed capacity in 2050, and it generates 8.5% of all U.S. electricity generation. Technology improvements are on the critical path toward achieving commercial EGS. This is vital because the GeoVision analysis demonstrates that, relative to other geothermal resources, EGS resources have the potential to provide the most growth in the electric sector. EGS can also support significant growth within the non-electric sector for district heating and other direct-use applications.

Optimizing permitting timelines could reduce costs and facilitate geothermal project development, potentially doubling installed geothermal capacity by 2050.

The GeoVision analysis included the examination of key regulatory, permitting, and land-access barriers to geothermal development. Streamlined regulations and permitting requirements can be achieved through a variety of mechanisms to shorten development timelines, which can—in turn—reduce financing costs during construction. For example, the analysis showed that placing geothermal regulatory and permitting requirements on a level similar to that of oil and gas and other energy industries could allow the geothermal industry to discover and develop additional resources and to reduce costs. The GeoVision analysis demonstrated that optimizing permitting alone could increase installed geothermal electricity-generation capacity to 13 GWe by 2050—more than double the 6 GWe projected in the Business-as Usual scenario that serves as the baseline for the GeoVision analysis.

Overcoming barriers to geothermal heating and cooling could stimulate market growth.

Geothermal heating and cooling is an underutilized resource for U.S. homes and businesses and an area of key growth potential. The GHP industry is expected to reduce energy costs to residential and commercial consumers and provide greater reliability and consistency in heating and cooling options. The existing installed capacity is about 16.8 gigawatts thermal (GWth) (Lund and Boyd 2016) and is equivalent to GHP installations in about 2 million households. The GeoVision analysis determined that the market potential for GHP technologies in the residential sector is equivalent to supplying heating and cooling solutions to 28 million households, or 14 times greater than the existing installed capacity. This potential represents about 23% of the total residential heating and cooling market share by 2050. Similarly, the economic potential for district-heating systems using existing direct-use geothermal resources combined with EGS technology advances is more than 17,500 installations nationwide, compared to the 21 total district-heating systems installed in the United States as of 2017 (Snyder et al. 2017). These district heating installations could satisfy the demand of about 45 million households (EIA 2015; McCabe et al. 2019; Liu et al. 2019). Realizing direct-use, district-heating potential will require advancing EGS technology and reducing soft-cost barriers.

Geothermal energy offers economic development opportunities in both rural communities and urban centers across the United States.

The results of the GeoVision analysis indicate that taking action consistent with the associated GeoVision Roadmap could expand the domestic geothermal industry and potentially add job opportunities in both urban and rural communities. Development of a robust residential and commercial GHP industry could also expand the U.S. geothermal workforce.

Increased geothermal deployment could improve U.S. air quality and reduce CO2 emissions.

The GeoVision analysis indicates opportunities for improved air quality resulting from reductions in sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions. The analysis further identifies opportunities for reduced carbon-dioxide emissions. For the electric sector, this could cumulatively result in up to 516 million metric tons (MMT) of avoided carbon-dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions through 2050. For the heating and cooling sector, impacts through 2050 could cumulatively include up to 1,281 MMT of CO2e emissions avoided. By 2050, the combined CO2e reductions for the two sectors is equivalent to removing about 26 million cars from the road annually.

The geothermal deployment levels calculated in the GeoVision analysis could be achieved without significant impacts on the nation's water resources.

Compared to the Business-as-Usual scenario, the high levels of deployment evaluated in the GeoVision analysis result in a slight increase (~4%) in the amount of water consumed by the power sector in 2050. This increase in consumption can be mitigated through the use of non-freshwater resources such as municipal wastewater and brackish groundwater.

Geothermal energy is secure, reliable, flexible, and constant. It offers the United States a renewable source for power generation as well as heating and cooling of homes and businesses. Geothermal resources and technologies are primed for strong deployment growth and stand ready to provide solutions to meet America's 21st-century demands for energy security, grid stability and reliability, and domestic and commercial heating and cooling needs.