What if all the energy we needed was stored underneath the ground we walk on every day?

Geothermal power, generated from capturing earth’s core heat stored deep underground, has become a growing reality as the industry marks a total US generation capacity of 3,000 MW this year. But unlike more recognized renewable energy sources like wind, solar and biomass, geothermal power is not widely recognized for its capability to produce base load, dependable, renewable energy.

“We’re often the much smaller voice, particularly in Washington,” Executive Director of the Geothermal Energy Association, Karl Gawell, told Breaking Energy. He said the industry has been particularly hurt by the short-cycle start-stop nature of energy policy that gives tax credits and cash grants for only a few years at a time. Geothermal plants take as much as four to eight years to construct and developers need stable long-term policy that they can rely on throughout that period.

But, he said, it “cuts both ways for geothermal. It’s harder to get things done quickly but on the other hand, when political winds change, we’ve already had a lot of investment locked in.”

We want to see congress have longer terms energy policies.

“We have to get past this short term thinking in federal government and this picking of winners and losers,” Gawell said.

Pondering The Untapped Potential

According to Gawell, Geothermal power has the potential to produce half of this country’s power. Preliminary geological studies in the western United States found as much as 75,000 MW of undiscovered geothermal potential energy under the earth. There have been about 10,000-15,000 MW worth of identified systems in the region. Across the country, he believes there is much much more potential, especially if the Department of Energy invests more money into research and development and helps the industry unlock even more reservoirs.

Although geothermal power is virtually endless, reservoirs have to be managed very carefully because it is possible to cool the underground rock enough to lose power supply. If environmental issues are properly mitigated, though, “you should be able to keep it stable relatively indefinitely,” Gawell said.

At the end of 2013, the 6-year production tax credit for geothermal energy is set to expire, making it unlikely, Gawell, said, that a developer will begin construction now for a new geothermal plant. Plants already under construction, however, will stay on track and may even bring the industry double-digit growth. Gawell said he predicts at least another 500 MW of geothermal power will be added by the end of 2013.

Western States Rule

Among the projects due to come online in 2012 and 2013 are Energy Source‘s Hudson Ranch I project, a 49.9 MW, $350 million facility currently in construction in the Salton Sea geothermal resource of Imperial County, California and Gradient Resource‘s 60 MW Patua plant under construction in Churchill County, near Fernley, Nevada.

Gawell said not all upcoming projects can be disclosed but he knows of projects under construction in Oregon, Colorado, Idaho and Hawaii that will come online by the end of 2013 with a total of 500 MW of power.

“We [the geothermal industry] have been growing since 2005 but pretty much at a single digit rate. Not the rapid growth you’ve seen in the solar world, so to suddenly move into double digit growth is pretty exciting to us and shows what is possible,” Gawell said.

Gawell said that geothermal power is burgeoning in the states that have put stable renewable energy policies in place. He cited California in particular for moving aggressively on renewables growth.

“Those states have renewable standards that are driving the market,” he said.

Photo Caption: Workers drill near a geothermal energy plant to tap deep underground heat from the southern San Andreas Fault rift zone near the Salton Sea on July 6 near Calipatria, California.