Drilling Down: What Can Geothermal Do for You?

 By Dorothy Davis

The once overlooked geothermal industry is a fast rising energy sector poised to create thousands of jobs 

Geothermal energy is far from new, but only recently has this renewable resource truly begun to garner a more comprehensive look into how it can serve as a viable commercial power source.

Geothermal energy is thermal energy naturally stored within the earth. When utilized to generate electricity, geothermal power is an effective, environmentally sound and sustainable resource.

Research, investments and project developments in the geothermal power industry are on the rise; more importantly, so are the jobs associated with this burgeoning energy sector.

Burgeoning Business

According to the International Geothermal Association, as of 2010 more than 10,000 megawatts (MW) of geothermal power is currently being utilized, a nearly 20 percent increase in active capacity since 2005. In 2010 the United States led the way in geothermal electricity production with more than 3,000 MW of installed capacity from 77 plants.

The Geothermal Energy Association (GEA) recently revealed the findings of new industry reports that show the geothermal industry will add thousands of jobs as dozens of new geothermal power plants come online or enter advanced stages of development. Furthermore, these reports highlighted that the geothermal industry is not just creating more jobs than most conventional energy per megawatt, but jobs that are permanent, full-time and often providing a higher wage. 

Growth Potential

The GEA anticipates that 2011 will be a high point of geothermal activity in the US, yielding approximately 500 to 700 MW of power projects in the final construction phase. These projects will add approximately 3,000 construction jobs, primarily in Nevada and California.

Nevada is an excellent example of the rapid and significant potential impact the growth of geothermal can present to a regional economy. In July 2010, the GEA said the growth of the geothermal industry in Nevada alone could be worth as much as $22.5 billion over the next 30 years if current trends continue.

With 14 geothermal power plants in the later stages of development, after groundbreaking these projects would create an estimated 1,400 construction jobs in Nevada.

“This high volume of geothermal projects moving into final stages of development will likely generate a massive geothermal boom in Nevada,” said GEA Executive Director Karl Gawell. “Along with the millions of dollars in federal and private investment, come thousands of new jobs.”

Governmental Support

The GEA report “Green Jobs through Geothermal Energy” also found that the federal stimulus, tax incentives, and strong state renewable standards continue to fuel the growth in geothermal power and job creation. Every geothermal project that came online in 2009 took advantage of the tax reimbursement provisions of the stimulus bill, which helped maintain momentum for new projects and continue to create new jobs in America.

It is also important to recognize that the benefits of the stimulus to the geothermal industry have yet to be fully realized. Nearly 95 percent of the projects receiving American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding are either less than 50 percent complete or have yet to break ground.

“Recovery Act funding is going to make a huge difference over the next year to push projects to completion and create more jobs. The majority of the ARRA investment will really start to pay dividends for the economy in 2011,” said Karl Gawell, GEA Executive Director. “It is critical that we continue to support these sound policies despite the rancor of several short-sighted initiatives which seek to strip away these tools to help grow our economy.”

Diversified Portfolio

The ARRA also appears to have attracted diverse groups into the geothermal sector. Almost half of the Geothermal Technologies Program awards from the stimulus went to non-industry entities such as colleges and universities; cities, counties, and other state and local institutions; tribal entities; and The Department of Energy’s National Labs.

This trend in diversity within the geothermal sector is only proving to bolster the emerging industry. As more geothermal jobs are being created, a number of educational providers across the country are establishing undergraduate, graduate and certification programs to meet demand.

“To keep creating jobs in the geothermal industry, we must keep getting talented individuals coming into the industry. The programs at these leading schools will develop the next generation of geothermal professionals,” Gawell said.

Geothermal energy has stepped beyond its once understated status into a promising sector with the potential to offer not only sustainable energy, but also sustainable jobs.

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