Today, there are only about 50,000 acres of federal geothermal leases in production across the USA which support about 1,200 MW of power capacity. In California, geothermal energy produces more power in than wind and solar combined, comprising almost 5% of the state’s electricity. But for the past two decades, there were 10 million acres of public land in California with geothermal potential that were off-limits due to bureaucratic oversight that are now becoming available for leasing.
So, how much geothermal energy potential could there be on these 10 million acres?
If ten percent of the land now open to leasing is eventually developed with similar yields to existing leases, geothermal production would increase 2000%. That is equivalent to roughly 243,000 MW, or roughly enough to power the whole state of California. This is just from the lands in California — the Programmatic Geothermal Environmental Impact Study (PGEIS) also made decisions for 11 other western states. And, while that sounds like a lot of land to give over development, geothermal power only uses a tiny fraction of each lease for power production.
So why aren’t more projects moving forward in California?
The quick and simple answer is that leases and permits are simply not being issued. Even when a lease is given, there are examples where after almost two years they are still waiting for a drilling permit to be issued. This includes leases that are within an existing geothermal field.
Another problem is continued delays in decision-making. At one geothermal site the delay is due to off-road vehicle users. Despite completion of a full EIS, development at one new site in Southern California, the project is not proceeding because leases have yet to be issued, because of opposition to the project from recreational off-road vehicle users who like to drive their four-wheel-drive vehicles around the area. The irony here is that
While these two examples might just seem to be the kind of problems typical when working on public lands, they are just the tip of the iceberg. In a state where federal and state lands play a significant role, most of the public lands have effectively been off limits for decades because the land-use plans of federal agencies simply didn’t consider geothermal energy when they were prepared.
Before a lease can be issued on public lands the land-use plan for the area has to have adequately considered geothermal leasing and made a decision that the lands could be open to leasing. Also, the land-use plan has to have an adequate and up-to-date environmental analysis (EA or EIS) supporting it. Because BLM (and the FS) simply have not done their homework in the land-use plans prepared over the past 25 years, most areas in California have been de facto closed to geothermal leasing and development.
That is why in 2007 and 2008 the BLM and Forest Service prepared a Programmatic Geothermal EIS (PGEIS) to address this history of neglect. Now, as part of their Record of Decision (ROD) on this document, the Department of the Interior is amending plans in California and other western states to either allow leasing or close lands to leasing on the basis of the results of their analysis. For California, the ROD proposes to amend land-use plans in 11 California BLM planning areas to open 10 million acres to possible geothermal leasing. At the same time, the ROD will close 5 million acres in these 11 BLM planning areas to geothermal leasing.
If someone cannot obtain a lease to develop a geothermal project, there is simply no incentive to explore for or develop new resources. Now, the BLM has in place the plans and environmental documents necessary to make a decision if someone nominates BLM lands for competitive leasing. But for the past two decades, 10 million acres of public land in California with geothermal potential were off-limits due to bureaucratic oversight.
Congress and the new administration have set some high goals for expanding renewable energy production, including geothermal energy. What they need to address now is the mess of federal and state policies that while trying to support renewable energy projects, have actually stifled them. Timely decisions regarding leasing and permitting must be enacted urgently as they are fundamental to achieving expanded geothermal energy production in California and the western USA.
Some of the companies in the geothermal and recovered energy power business in the western USA are Ormat Technologies Inc. (NYSE:ORA), U.S. Geothermal Inc. (AMEX:HTM), Raser Technologies, Inc. (NYSE:RZ) and Nevada Geothermal Power Inc. (OTC:NGLPF)