Geothermal Rising champions clean, renewable energy in the face of climate change

06 July 2022

Climate change is a global crisis that affects all of us. Its ramifications include the last decade being the hottest one in the past 125,000 years, the planet now experiencing record-high levels of carbon dioxide, and 1.2 trillion tons of ice melting every year. Through a variety of measures, individuals and companies around the world are working to reduce their carbon footprints, whether it’s a household adding a compost bin to the kitchen or a business going paperless. Such reductions of resource usage certainly help mitigate the deleterious effects of climate change. 

But making broader changes at a root level can have an even greater impact. This is why the push to transition to renewable energy sources is so essential. The use of energy generated by the sun and wind has been a notable topic of conversation in this arena. Another energy source, but one that has been less discussed, is the earth itself.

Geothermal Energy Is All Around Us
Will Pettitt, former Executive Director of Geothermal Rising (GR), is a self-described “techie tree-hugger” who is an applied geophysicist expert in subsurface science and geomechanics. According to Pettitt, climate change is the greatest existential threat to human civilization, and geothermal energy is a significant component to staving it off.

“Earth’s heat is ubiquitous,” said Pettitt. “And if you go any farther than a few feet beneath the earth’s surface, you’ll find heat energy. When you use geothermal energy, what you are doing is recovering that heat energy and using it to either generate electricity or operate heating and cooling systems.” 

One type of geothermal energy is installed by inserting a system of underground pipes and running water through them to transport heat into and out of the earth. The deeper the pipes are placed, the greater the power that can be generated this way; at the greatest depths, you can generate electricity, while pipes at higher levels are used for heating and cooling. The installation process is very visible, but once the system is in place, the only signifier of its presence is likely a geothermal pump. 

In part because of this, it hasn’t necessarily attracted a lot of attention from the public. “If solar panels are installed on a building, they are an enormous, glimmering beacon of sustainability. The same goes for windmills and electric cars,” said Jay Egg, Board Member of Geothermal Rising and President of EGG Geo. “But if you opt for a geothermal system, there isn’t a green badge of honor demarcating the building as a sustainable structure. So you would never know it, but there are 14,000 buildings in New York City alone that are running on geothermal energy.”  

The use of geothermal energy isn’t limited to New York, though, or to businesses and other public buildings — according to Pettitt, there are around 4 million geothermal pumps in use in private residences nationwide. Installing geothermal energy in a building, whether a home or an office, comes with a higher up-front cost than other energy sources require; however, it pays back in spades, as the lifetime energy cost following installation is significantly lower. This means that financially, transitioning to geothermal energy is a net gain.

This form of energy is a cost-saving measure on a macro level as well. Over time, it will become necessary to increase our power capacity, both as the population grows and as the temperatures rise, bringing with them the greater need for energy to keep buildings cool. 

“If you compare the cost of converting every building to a geothermal energy network to the cost of increasing the capacity of the electric grid, geothermal is 30 percent cheaper,” Egg said. “And geothermal usage represents a major reduction of carbon from buildings, which are responsible for 40 percent of the carbon emissions in the United States. So regardless of what other energy resource changes we adopt, unless we do geothermal heating, we can’t reach our carbon emission goals.” 

There is sometimes a misconception that geothermal energy isn’t clean. The pipework and the geothermal plants that are required for industrial energy use might suggest this is the case, but in fact, the end-to-end environmental impact of geothermal energy is incredibly low, as it generates very little in the way of emissions. In addition to that, while wind and solar energy each have important roles to play when it comes to renewable energy, in square footage, geothermal has a significantly smaller footprint than wind and solar do.

Clean Energy Available to All
Relative to other alternative energy options, the amount of infrastructure required for geothermal energy is minimal, and while a system can be built to encompass an entire business or academic campus, one can also be built for an individual home — there is no requirement for running lines to a power plant, and there is no place too urban or too rural to use geothermal energy. This is one part of its great appeal.

From St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City to West Virginia University, public and private institutions are also benefiting from geothermal energy. Some of these buildings have been running on geothermal since as far back as the 1970s. And because this renewable energy source is so widely available, it holds extremely positive implications for environmental justice. Currently, low-income and marginalized communities are disproportionately affected by environmental factors, such as pollution, and this includes climate change itself. 

“If we can scale up geothermal and reduce the costs, it can be applied anywhere, so you would be able to build power stations or heating systems anywhere in the world. This would offer a lot of possibilities for getting energy to people in remote places in areas of the world that really need energy but that aren’t getting that energy right now,” Pettitt said. “This environmental justice factor is really an amazing benefit to geothermal energy.”

If a switch to renewable energy isn’t made, these communities will be hardest hit, but everyone else will be affected as well. In the event that the global temperature continues to rise unchecked, we will see mass species extinction as animals lose their habitats; flooding of coastal cities due to sea levels rising, and increase in superstorms, heat waves, droughts, and wildfires; global food shortages; and the dwindling of water supplies.

This is why it’s so vital that members of the industry work together to move geothermal energy forward. GR’s work in unifying the various stakeholders in geothermal energy helps shepherd everyone closer to a future with much lower levels of carbon usage.

Geothermal Rising
Like many non-profit associations, GR is an essential element of the industry that it represents. Associations are repositories of knowledge, hubs of networking, and engines of change.

“One of the things I really enjoy about Geothermal Rising is that we create so many partnerships,” said Pettitt. “We, as an association, are literally in the business of bringing people together, connecting people, and forging those partnerships that move the needle.”

On a national level, the organization helps those who work in the industry pool their knowledge. And through GR’s participation in the International Geothermal Association, it helps spread that knowledge on a global scale. 

Knowledge about geothermal energy needs to be spread outside the industry as well, which is why GR develops market research and reports and has been ramping up its PR arm. Whether creating a captivating video for social media or connecting with people on LinkedIn, the organization is working on behalf of the industry to make inroads into the public consciousness. As Egg said, the use of geothermal energy isn’t especially visible, and as a result, the public isn’t as aware of it as they are of other forms of renewable energy.

Bipartisan Efforts to Turn Energy Green
One targeted area for spreading information is the government. Geothermal energy has appeal on both sides of the aisle. It’s clean and renewable, yes, but it also creates jobs.

“Geothermal energy has the highest jobs per megawatt of any of the clean, renewable energies because you need people to actually manage the power and heating plants,” Pettitt said. “There is also an energy transition, where workers are able to move from jobs that were in the fossil industry, like coal, for instance, over to jobs in something like geothermal.”

GR hopes to see Congress pass a package of clean energy bills passed that will include tax breaks for clean energy users. The group also works closely with the Department of Energy and directly with legislators to secure funding for research, development, and demonstration.

“Infusing money into the industry allows us to develop and innovate the geothermal technologies that we can then scale up to expand geothermal usage across the country,” Pettitt said. 

Going Green Is the Way of the Future
“Over the next few decades, we have to resolve the problems that we will have created with climate change, such as human migration, water shortages, and rising sea levels,” Pettitt said. “We will need clean energy. Geothermal is one of those clean energies, and it will make a massive difference. So I like to think of myself and folks in geothermal energy as being on the front line of that.”

Egg also considers the import of geothermal energy to be on a massive scale. Ever since his time as a nuclear power engineer in the US Navy in the 1980s, Egg has continued to focus on finding ways to use and reuse energy. He believes geothermal exchange is a long game. 

“Electric cars and solar panels were all the rage back in the 1970s, but they didn’t actually gain traction until the 2000s,” Egg said. “And that’s where geothermal is going. What’s going to take place in the next 30 years with it is beyond comprehension.”

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