Geothermal wants a seat at the table

Geothermal energy could be a major contributor to California’s energy landscape, if only given the proper tools and policy support. That was the gist of a recent forum held at the Geothermal Energy Association (GEA) conference in Sacramento.

Karl Gawell, the executive director of GEA, lamented the current state of affairs, when California was decades ahead in deployment of the resource.

“California, the home of geothermal, the center of the industry, right now seems to be treading water. Largely in the last year as we’ve seen a lot of solar solicitations and other renewable energy, but new geothermal projects are stalled for a variety of reasons,” he said.

The organization believes California could be headed to another energy crisis if power plants aren’t built and coal retirements continue as compliance with greenhouse gas restrictions come into force. The state also has an aggressive renewable portfolio standard of 33% by 2020.

Recent GEA research points to over 4,500 MW of geothermal power under development in California, Oregon and Nevada to underscore that geothermal power can continue to play a significant role in meeting California’s clean energy needs. Today, geothermal power plants provide 4.6% of California’s power. New projects GEA identified could triple that contribution.

Much of the geothermal capacity is selling power to markets to the east, in Arizona, Gawell said, as transmission constraints limit the ability of the resource to power coastal regions.

Coordination of transmission planning with resource development has to be more closely aligned, admitted Karen Edson, Vice-President, Policy and Client Services, California ISO.

“We’re getting at this but these are long lead time assets,” she said.

Transmission planning is a five- to seven-year process, just like geothermal power development, but coordination of the two is problematic.

“We have projects here in California that continue to come online because of our long lead time for five to seven years. What we’re looking at is a distant horizon,” said Paul Thomsen, Director, at integrated equipment manufacturer and project developer Ormat Technologies, Inc.

In his view, the state has planned much renewables development and procurement around wind and solar projects, which create a new set of challenges.

“There’s this over procurement of intermittent resources, as there is this need to fill the bucket,” he said. “Someday there is going to be a rude awakening, when we will be asking what we were doing.  Why don’t we have these baseload, firm and flexible resources to meet that demand?”