The harnessing of heat energy found within Earth's crust has a history dating back thousands of years. While ancient cultures used this geothermal energy for bathing and cooking purposes, modern uses include electricity generation, district heating, and various industrial applications. The global geothermal energy capacity has been consistently increasing for over a decade and, in 2021, surpassed 15.6 gigawatts. As of 2020, the United States was the world leader in cumulative installed geothermal capacity. In fact, several U.S. energy policy decisions over the years, including the Geothermal Steam Act of 1970, the Energy Policy Act of 2005, and the Advanced Geothermal Research and Development Act of 2007, have sought to expand geothermal energy use in the United States. Due to vast geothermal resources located in the Western part of the country, geothermal energy plays a vital role in several states.
Geothermal resources in the U.S.
Geothermal is an attractive renewable energy source, considering the amount of heat stored within the first 10,000 meters of the Earth's surface, which is estimated to contain about 50,000 times more energy than all the oil and gas resources worldwide. However, geothermal energy potential varies across regions. As geothermal resources tend to be situated near tectonic plate boundaries or other geological hot spots, the Western United States is a prime location for harnessing this energy. California, located on the border of the North American and Pacific plates, is home to the country's most significant number of geothermal plants and two of the world's largest geothermal plants. Nevada ranks second in geothermal energy utilization based on its abundant geothermal wells and hot springs.
Although the uses of geothermal energy are diverse, including residential home heating and various industrial uses, the electric power sector accounts for the vast majority of the consumption. In 2021, over 16 billion kilowatt hours of electricity was generated using geothermal sources in the United States. Unsurprisingly, California and Nevada are the leading states in geothermal electric power consumption. Despite the benefits of geothermal power, the costs for operating and maintaining geothermal power plants are some of the highest in the country compared to harvesting other energy resources. The least expensive geothermal plant type still had annual fixed costs of 143 U.S. dollars per kilowatt hour and variable costs of 1.21 U.S. dollars per megawatt hour in 2021.
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