A Hot Future for Geothermal

By: Marin Katusa & Marc Bustin | Fri, Dec 11, 2009
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Capturing energy from the earth's heat is pretty easy pickin's for geologically-active areas of the world like Iceland, Indonesia, and Chile. In some locations, hot fluids are so near the earth's surface that heat from naturally-occurring hot fluids can be directly circulated through buildings for heating. Iceland, in particular, takes advantage of this low-hanging energy fruit.

However, in most areas of the world where geothermal energy is captured, the heat is used to generate electricity.

Conventional Geothermal Energy

Unlike some of the more common alternative energies -- hydro, solar, and wind -- geothermal is impervious to weather conditions. This independence means it provides excellent base load electricity.

Currently all commercial geothermal electricity is generated by so-called conventional systems, whereby naturally- occurring hot water or steam is accessed at comparatively shallow depths in areas of very high geothermal gradient. Wells are commonly drilled to depths on the order of 2 km. The water or steam they produce is used to spin turbines that in turn generate electricity.

The success and sustainability of a geothermal reservoir in large part depends on managing the reservoir. For a reservoir to be sustained, the natural and induced recharge of fluids must balance the produced fluids. Almost all reservoirs require the produced water to be re-injected in order to maintain reservoir pressure. Because naturally-occurring water and steam are necessary, potential development is generally restricted to areas near volcanic activity.

But the geographic limitations of geothermal energy may be about to change -- and create a much rosier picture for the future of geothermal energy.

Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS)

Conventional geothermal systems are possible only in relatively limited geographic areas. The real prize in accessing geothermal energy - and at a much larger scale - is through enhanced (or engineered) geothermal systems.

In EGS, hot rocks are artificially fractured, commonly at great depths. Water is injected to contact the hot rocks and then produced back to the surface; the energy captured is used to generate electricity. These are very expensive ventures, with costs in excess of $10 million dollars as a starting point -- ten times the cost of a geothermal well. Current EGS projects are still experimental, and most have substantial government backing.

A relatively advanced EGS experimental system is currently underway in Australia. Here, granites producing high heat due to radioactive decay at depths greater than 3 km are seen as viable geothermal reservoirs. In South Australia alone, some 23 companies have filled licenses covering 110,000 sq km where suitable hot granite is believed to exist at accessible depths.

Once such a plant is built, it will be tapped into a virtually limitless supply of energy that's available without cost, 24/7. Successful implementation of EGS plants will be the break-out technology for geothermal energy.

Is Geothermal Economically Viable?

A workable technology is one thing, and economic viability is something entirely different. As you can see from the chart below, not all energy sources are created equal when it comes to cost per kilowatt-hour.

In terms of production cost, geothermal certainly holds its own at 6.5 cents per kilowatt-hour -- about the same as wind. Coal and nuclear power are still powering the way ahead with their 4-5 cent/kWh generation costs, but with natural gas at 7 cents and petroleum topping 10, geothermal has already proven itself to be a viable alternative, not only on the economic front but on the environmental front as well.

In terms of current worldwide energy production, geothermal -- along with solar -- is a drop in the bucket:

Given the fact that geothermal energy is only a minor player in the worldwide picture for energy, why are we still bothering with it?

Because in terms of economics, geothermal energy trounces solar and wind.

Here's what we mean:

  1. Geothermal energy does not depend on weather. The sun doesn't shine around the clock or even every day; neither does the wind blow all the time. In contrast, hot rocks are there 24 hours of the day, seven days a week. The predictable amount of electricity makes it easy for geothermal companies to sign long-term energy contracts without worrying as much about underproduction or "wasted" production.

  2. Lower capital costs. Even though solar panels have gotten much cheaper to make, the construction costs of a large solar farm are still extremely high. Recent estimates place the cost of solar energy to be upwards of US$10,000 per kilowatt-hour (kW) whereas wind is around $1,700-$3,000/kW. Geothermal is similar to wind at US$1,600-$2,800/kW depending on location, though due to reasons 1 and 3, geothermal is economically superior to solar and wind. In fact, these numbers put geothermal on par with building a coal plant under the new requirements for carbon capture.

    Geothermal capital costs are relatively low for two reasons. First, there's no need to sequester, or capture and stash, any carbon emissions. This requirement alone can add 40-60% to fossil fuel projects. Second, geothermal power plants enjoy the best of both worlds: they require less land than wind and solar projects, and fewer permits than coal and nuclear because they're less hazardous.

  3. Higher load factor. Utility companies, and anybody buying power from them, have to consider load factor: the difference between nameplate capacity (how much the generator is designed to produce) and actual production. The smaller the difference, the higher the load factor, and the more money the utility will make. For a wind farm, the load factor is generally 30-40%, and even lower for solar farms. In contrast, geothermal power plants can generally operate near 90%, since, as we said before, hot rocks are always available.

On an economic basis, geothermal has a virtually unique advantage among the "green" energies. Its power plants can compete with those fired by coal or natural gas even before any government subsidies. For geothermal operating companies in the United States, the government subsidies that Obama is showering upon the alternative energy sector are pure icing on the cake.

And best of all, geothermal companies are virtually off the radar of most investors. For those keeping an eye on geothermal technology and geothermal companies, a window of great opportunity will open.

This kind of research is typical of Casey's Energy Report and its research team, led by Marin Katusa. And with a stock pick record of 19 winners in a row -- a 100% success rate over 11 months -- Marin's insightful research has made a great deal of money for his subscribers.

As a special year-end offer, we have drastically lowered the price of Casey's Energy Report - but only until December 18. Sign up for a 3-month trial today and receive 40% off the subscription price PLUS a free holiday gift! Click here to learn more.

 


 

Marin Katusa

Author: Marin Katusa

Marin Katusa
Senior Editor Energy Division
Casey Research, LLC.

Marin Katusa

Marin Katusa, an accomplished investment analyst, is the senior editor of Casey Energy Opportunities, Casey Energy Confidential, and the Casey 50. He left a successful teaching career to pursue analyzing and investing in junior resource companies. In addition, he is a member of the Vancouver Angel Forum where he and his colleagues evaluate early seed investment opportunities. Marin also manages a portfolio of international real estate projects. Using advanced mathematical skills, he has created a diagnostic resource market tool that analyzes and compares hundreds of investment variables. Through his own investments, Marin has established a network of relationships with many of the key players in the junior resource sector in Vancouver. Marin has the connections, the mathematical and analytical acumen to bring the best investment ideas and most promising private placement offerings to Casey Research subscribers.

Information contained herein is obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but its accuracy cannot be guaranteed. The information contained herein is not intended to constitute individual investment advice and is not designed to meet your personal financial situation. The opinions expressed herein are those of the publisher and are subject to change without notice. The information herein may become outdated and there is no obligation to update any such information. Doug Casey, entities in which he has an interest, employees, officers, family, and associates may from time to time have positions in the securities or commodities covered in these publications. Corporate policies are in effect that attempt to avoid potential conflicts of interest, and resolve conflicts of interest that do arise in a timely fashion. No portion of this web site may be extracted or reproduced without permission of the publisher.

Copyright © 2006-2015 Casey Research, LLC.

Marc Bustin

Author: Marc Bustin

Dr. Marc Bustin
Senior Research: Unconventional Oil & Gas
Casey Research, LLC.

Dr. Marc Bustin

Dr. Marc Bustin is a professor of petroleum and coal geology in the Dept. of Earth Sciences, University of British Colombia. He has authored over 150 scientific articles on fossil fuels and served as an associate editor for journals like the Canadian Society of Petroleum Geology Bulletin. Marc is an elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and a member of American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG), The Society for Organic Petrology and the Geological Society of America. He has received several awards for excellence in his field including: the A.L. Leverson Memorial Award from the AAPG, the Thiesson Medal from the International Committee for Coal Petrology in 2002 for his contributions to coal sciences/organic petrology and the Sproule Award in 2003 for his contributions to the study of unconventional gas resources.

Information contained herein is obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but its accuracy cannot be guaranteed. The information contained herein is not intended to constitute individual investment advice and is not designed to meet your personal financial situation. The opinions expressed herein are those of the publisher and are subject to change without notice. The information herein may become outdated and there is no obligation to update any such information. Doug Casey, entities in which he has an interest, employees, officers, family, and associates may from time to time have positions in the securities or commodities covered in these publications. Corporate policies are in effect that attempt to avoid potential conflicts of interest, and resolve conflicts of interest that do arise in a timely fashion. No portion of this web site may be extracted or reproduced without permission of the publisher.

Copyright © 2009 Casey Research, LLC.

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