Commentary, Energy

DoE’s Geothermal Research Program not funded FY2007

02.06.07 | 1 Comment

In what has become one of the latest examples of the Bush Administration’s difficulty with matching their actions to their words, the geothermal program at the Department of Energy will receive funding this fiscal year of $0 if the budget passes as is. This is a national tragedy in the making as we are unable (or unwilling) to make use of all the assets we have to drive toward energy independence.

Why is geothermal important? I’m glad you asked. Geothermal power is the only renewable capable of baseload generation – meaning, it’ll be there when you flip your TV on (you do expect it to come on, right?) Solar, wind, biomass, and hydro are all less than baseload as they are affected by external factors (sunlight, wind, and drought.) Geothermal power generation in a closed system is zero emission. In an open system, it’s still far less than 1% as polluting as coal generation. The recent MIT study demonstrated there is more than enough heat stored in the Earth’s crust for us to harvest to power the nation (and indeed, the world.) You would think that a power source with these attributes would be at or near the top of any energy policy’s priorities.

When one considers the size of the Department of Energy’s proposed budget, the ridiculousness of this action becomes clear: The total budget is $24,300,000,000 or $24.3 BILLION. The size of the geothermal program? $0.0022B or $22 MILLION. The amount budgeted for maintaining our nuclear capability? $9.4 billion. The amount set aside to clean up the environmental messes we’ve already made? $9.4 billion. The amount budgeted for basic science? $4.4 billion (this is a good thing, but geothermal must be part of the research program.) $3.1 billion is budgeted for energy efficiency and supply programs. Fundamentally, I have nothing against other renewable programs being funded (an aside, solar funding is flat, wind has been cut 10%, hydro and geothermal have been cut altogether; hydrogen, biomass, and “clean coal” have all seen big increases in funding.) But I do have heartburn with failing to fund the one renewable electricity generation source that stands a chance of displacing aging, dirty coal plants.

The geothermal program is a rounding error in a budget of this size. The program deserves to be funded an order of magnitude more per year in order to realize the potential of the geothermal resources inside our border, not eliminated. The solution to this budget mess is clear, cut “clean coal” research by $250 million and use it to fund geothermal at the right level. After all, if coal pollution is cut by anything less than 99%, it’s still more polluting than the dirtiest geothermal resource. This is a matter of priorities and, as usual, the Bush Administration is confused in what is in the national interest by why is in the interest of their big money donors (see TXU and the $11 BILLION dollar coal construction binge in Texas.) Politics clearly play a role in this as well as Harry Reid (D,) US Senator from Nevada (home to huge amounts of geothermal potential) is the Senate Majority Leader, the Administration is aiming to hurt him at home and/or use that as a lever to get something else in the future if they cave on the geothermal research request.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter why this is happening. The action signals the end of US government support for geothermal as a renewable energy source. A resource that could over the course of 50 years displace the entire coal electricity generation infrastructure in the United States with the attendant environmental benefits. And that’s the point, isn’t it? Geothermal is being sacrificed on the altar of “clean coal” – if ever there was an oxymoron, it is “clean coal.”

We’ll watch closely to see what changes happen in the proposed budget, but we’re not hopeful. If you would like make yourself heard on the subject, write your local Congressial representative and your Senators.

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