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Event recap

On December 1, 2020, the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center hosted an event focused on the future of US geothermal energy, where panelists highlighted lessons learned from Iceland, the world’s geothermal industry leader, and discussed the opportunities for further US geothermal development. In kicking off the event, H.E. Thórdís Kolbrún R. Gylfadóttir, Icelandic minister of tourism, industry, and innovation, delivered opening remarks, spotlighting her country’s role in the geothermal industry and avenues for US-Iceland cooperation. Following her address, the event moved into an public panel discussion featuring Minister Gylfadóttir, The Hon. Daniel R Simmons, assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy at the US Department of Energy (DOE), Alexander Richter, managing director at the Icelandic Renewable Energy Cluster, Ann Robertson-Tait, president of GeothermEx, and Katherine Young, geothermal laboratory program manager at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.  Ragnheiður Elín Árnadóttir, former Icelandic minister of industry & commerce and Atlantic Council Global Energy Center nonresident senior fellow, moderated the conversation.

The United States can learn from Iceland’s geothermal energy development, which has had tangible positive social, economic, and environmental impacts on the country and its people. In harnessing Iceland’s domestic renewable energy resources, the government was able to transition away from imported fossil fuels and capitalize on its own zero-carbon energy potential. After decades of investment and effort, geothermal is now used to heat 90 percent of the homes in Iceland and power 25 percent of the electricity grid. Minister Gylfadóttir noted that the economic benefits of geothermal development are very clear, as the geothermal energy industry generates 7 percent of the country’s total gross domestic product. 

Given the vast untapped geothermal potential across the United States, there are many opportunities for US-Iceland cooperation in this area. Minister Gylfadóttir outlined several possibilities for cooperation: building on the existing Memorandum of Understanding on Energy Cooperation between the two countries, facilitating geothermal technology development focused on energy efficiency, opening new forms of diplomatic and business engagement, and conducting joint analysis on the regulatory and financial challenges hindering US geothermal growth. 

Building on the Minister’s comments, Assistant Secretary Simmons began by empathizing that this is an exciting time for geothermal energy in the United States. He spoke about the Department of Energy’s Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy (FORGE), a laboratory dedicated to developing enhanced geothermal systems (EGS), which could allow for the extraction of geothermal resources anywhere in the United States and the expansion of the industry beyond the Western states. In discussing the future of US geothermal energy, Assistant Secretary Simmons directly alluded to the 2019 DOE GeoVision report, which found that US geothermal power generation could climb to 60 gigawatts (GW) by the year 2050.

Robertson-Tait explained that US geothermal energy is diverse in terms of location, geological conditions, and temperatures; this diversity has led to the growth of new geothermal power plants, with nine new power purchase agreements signed in 2020. She projects that with strong public and private partnerships, geothermal energy generation will triple over the next twenty years. Richter added that ongoing geothermal research and development in the United States, like that focused on lithium extraction from wastewater brine and district heating, will have a substantial impact on international geothermal energy developments as well. 

In discussing the incoming Biden-Harris administration’s robust climate and clean energy goals, Richter recommended White House leadership place greater value on geothermal energy, a reliable, baseload source of zero-carbon power and heat, in the US decarbonization strategy. This can be accomplished, according to Richter, by funding DOE research and development, streamlining permitting for projects at the Bureau of Land Management, and investing in technology transfer from the oil and gas sector. On this same topic, Minister Gylfadóttir spoke to the many opportunities for commercial and diplomatic collaboration between the United States and Iceland, as well as the the possible avenues of cooperation she would like to chart with the Biden-Harris administration. 

In touching on the DOE Geovision report, Young explained that the analysis provided insight into how geothermal energy deployment could become cost-competitive with other renewable energy sources and how geothermal could be made accessible anywhere in the country. Young mentioned that enhanced geothermal systems, an advanced technology that extracts heat by creating a subsurface fracture system to which water can be added through injection wells, can be used to achieve those objectives. She asserted that currently there is growing excitement and investment in EGS technologies, and that many startup companies have begun to enter the geothermal EGS space.

According to Assistant Secretary Simmons, there is bipartisan support for geothermal energy development in Congress, and he does not see that changing anytime soon. He asserted that this momentum could be supplemented by US cooperation with geothermal leaders across the world such as Iceland, New Zealand, and Kenya. Additionally, Assistant Secretary Simmons stressed that civil society and private sector engagement with the DOE’s Geothermal Technology Office and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is critical for moving geothermal energy forward in the United States. 

All panelists agreed that US geothermal energy sector should move beyond power generation and capitalize on the holistic value it provides across a number of value streams, such as tourism, industrial input, critical mineral extraction, and heating and cooling. Richter explained that geothermal energy could also become more competitive if cost savings from oil and gas technologies are applied, and if stronger renewable energy standards, tax credits, and other public policies at the state or federal level are implemented. In providing a tangible example of geothermal’s added value beyond power, Minister Gylfadóttir underscored that geothermal energy has spurred Iceland’s tourism industry; the famous Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik would not exist without the adjacent geothermal plant.

And in closing, Young highlighted the many benefits geothermal energy development could offer, underscoring geothermal’ s 24/7 baseload reliability and the sector’s enormous job creation potential. The panelists all agreed that geothermal energy must be ascribed a much higher value across the country to account for its various uses across industries and sectors, as well as well as for its role as a reliable, baseload renewable energy source.

Maria Castillo is a Spring 2021 Intern at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center.

Agenda

Keynote remarks by

H.E. Thórdís Kolbrún R. Gylfadóttir
Minister of Tourism, Industry, and Innovation
Government of Iceland

A conversation with

H.E. Thórdís Kolbrún R. Gylfadóttir
Minister of Tourism, Industry, and Innovation
Government of Iceland

The Hon. Daniel R Simmons
Assistant Secretary, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
US Department of Energy

Alexander Richter
Managing Director
Iceland Renewable Energy Cluster; Iceland Geothermal

Ann Robertson-Tait
President
GeothermEx

Katherine Young
Geothermal Laboratory Program Manager
National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Moderated by

Ragnheiður Elín Árnadóttir
Former Icelandic Minister of Industry & Commerce
Nonresident Senior Fellow

Atlantic Council Global Energy Center

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