Geothermal energy often finds itself left out of the alternative energy discussion.

This energy source is almost entirely carbon-free, emits no noxious pollutants, generates little-to-no waste, disturbs local wildlife to almost no degree, and delivers base load power at high capacity and extremely low cost. Yet politicians and energy scientists aren’t pushing for more geothermal power with the same zeal as, say, wind farms and solar panels.

With a global output that only recently reached past 10,000 megawatts, it’s difficult to compare with global fossil fuel output that measures in the tens of thousands of terawatts. However, there are good reasons for this, and there are a growing number of places where geothermal generators outperform fossil fuels and renewable energy sources as the most economically viable energy source available.

The number one leader in geothermal energy output is the United States, as of November 2016. Next comes the Philippines, which projects a doubling of its energy output by 2030 and expects much of this output to be produced by geothermal means.

Next, in order of output volume, comes a list of countries that include some well-known geothermal hotspots and some surprising new entrants to the field:

  • Indonesia
  • New Zealand
  • Italy
  • Mexico
  • Turkey
  • Kenya
  • Iceland
  • Japan

This list is not by any means exhaustive. Other nations produce a combined 835 megawatts of geothermal energy, but it will take time and innovative technology to increase this number.

Why is Global Geothermal Power Output Not Greater?

Geothermal power plants use the heat emanating from the Earth’s core to generate electricity. While the core produces an extraordinary amount of heat, in many areas on the planet’s surface the combination of geology, hydrology, and heat flow simply isn’t powerful enough to produce an economically feasible output.

It is not possible to transport geothermal energy sources. The majority of large population centers that rely on them today were simply lucky – there are very few cities built specifically on geothermal power sources because of the source’s presence.

That means that by definition, geothermal power is hit-or-miss when it comes to serving major cities. Geothermal energy is an enormous boon to any population fortunate enough to be near it, but largely immaterial for cities not built near an energy source.

Currently, the areas that are maximizing their use of locally available geothermal energy sources include Northern California, the East and South China Seas, and a few spots in the Mediterranean basin. There are additional geographical areas that have these resources, however, they are working to determine how electricity can be generated using them.

Nations with the Greatest Additional Geothermal Capacity Under Development

By far, the nation with the greatest additional capacity under development is Indonesia. The country plans on more than tripling its output by 2030, which will put it on track to be one of the world’s largest producers.

Japan is also increasing its geothermal energy output as a result of the disastrous Fukushima nuclear meltdown. Japanese authorities noticed that when the tsunami struck and the country’s nuclear power grid was in chaos, its geothermal capacity remained almost entirely unaffected, owing to geothermal power’s admirable durability.

Ethiopia, Kenya, and Turkey are also vastly increasing their production within similar timeframes. Kenya, in particular, is already producing 20 percent of its power capacity through its Olkaria power plant – one of the world’s largest geothermal power plants. Geothermal scientists, however, believe that this output is only a fraction of what the area could produce.

The area surrounding Kenya’s aptly named Hell’s Gate National Park is one of the most active geothermal areas on the planet. This is unique since Kenya does not rely on shifting tectonic plates for geothermal energy the way California, Japan, and New Zealand do.

Perhaps the only country with a greater claim to geothermal energy’s future is Iceland, where established power generation plants have long attracted foreign investment in the form of high-energy industry such as aluminum smelting. In Iceland’s case, industrial concerns that install high energy processing facilities can benefit from electricity so cheap it is almost free. In return, foreign investors generate jobs and boost the island nation’s economy.

This seems to be the strategy that Kenya and Ethiopia are taking. Both countries have much to gain by installing sophisticated geothermal plants within their borders, and can now take advantage of enhanced technology for the purpose.

The Future of Geothermal Power

So far, extant geothermal systems have largely been based on low-hanging fruit – geothermal activity so close to the surface that it almost begs for economic exploitation. However, further developments in sophisticated drilling techniques may soon provide greater access to higher output sources.

For instance, the US Geological Survey estimates that half a million megawatts of untouched geothermal energy lay in the western United States alone. Finding an economically feasible means to process these energy sources efficiently is one of the top goals shared by geothermal scientists the world over.

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