8 October 2010: US and Iceland co-operate on geothermal energy

8 October 2010: US and Iceland co-operate on geothermal energy

It isn’t often worth commenting on the fact that an agreement has been signed. Too many politicians make too many promises about what they plan to do in the future. However, a co-operation agreement between the US, the world’s top polluter, and Iceland, the world leader on geothermal energy use, is an exception.

‘Geothermal energy’ means using the heat from the centre of the earth. This is not, strictly speaking, renewable as it will eventually run out. However, there is no shortage of it. Al Gore notes in his book, Our choice: a plan to solve the climate crisis, that the geothermal resource is roughly 280,000 times the annual consumption of primary energy in the world. He then writes that:

… geothermal energy has virtually no CO2 emissions. Geothermal plants are modular and scalable – and have the smallest environmental ‘footprint’ on the surface. Like solar power, geothermal is available virtually everywhere on earth: underneath developing countries as well as wealthier countries. But unlike solar and wind power, it is not intermittent. Once in place, a geothermal electricity plant provides power 24 hours a day.”

Our choice is an excellent book, providing proposals for solutions to move beyond the problems that Gore presented so effectively in An Inconvenient Truth. However, his discussion of energy focuses too much on electricity. He does cover heat in his chapter on biomass, Growing energy, but his chapter on geothermal energy is almost all about electricity, apart from a brief mention of heat pumps. (These do not, in fact, use energy from the core of the earth, but solar energy trapped in the upper layers of the earth’s surface.)

Iceland gets 97% of its heat from geothermal sources (see Iceland – climate and energy statistics), so has much to teach the rest of us about this. It is currently hosting a week-long discussion about geothermal energy (see The International Partnership for Geothermal Technology (IPGT)). Australia, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Netherlands, Norway, Republic of Korea, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, and the US are represented. The US-Iceland agreement, signed during this meeting, aims to accelerate geothermal deployment. US Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, has given geothermal expansion his backing. (He is quoted in Our choice as saying that the amount of geothermal energy potentially available is “effectively unlimited”.)

However, like other low-carbon energy sources, geothermal is not yet cheap. Like solar, wind, wave, tidal and biomass, it will only expand with public financial support. So will nuclear (which never will be cheap) and CCS (which probably never will be either). The economic situation facing so many countries is now the main obstacle to progress on climate control.

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