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Geothermal power, which uses the Earth's natural heat to produce electricity and heating services, is increasingly being recognized as a valuable resource by policymakers (Source: Energy Conservation Future).

Hydropower and geothermal technologies are some of the oldest and longest-standing renewables in use today. In 2011, the total capacity and use of both technologies continued to increase. The two technologies, however, are at very different stages of deployment. By year-end 2011, global installed capacity of hydropower reached 970 gigawatts (GW), roughly 2.5 times greater than capacity of all other renewable power sources combined. By contrast, geothermal installed capacity reached a new high of 11.2 GW as of year-end 2011. While overall capacity continued to increase, consumption growth slowed for both technologies compared to recent years with each growing at reduced rates not seen since the early 2000s.

The majority of geothermal power is found in a select group of countries, although capacity has now been developed in 24 countries worldwide. The United States continues to lead all others, accounting for 28 percent of geothermal power capacity. Beyond the U.S., only three other countries had over 1 GW of capacity installed as of May 2012. Geothermal is increasingly attracting the attention of policymakers and project developers with new projects under development or consideration in an additional 70 countries. Though expanding, geothermal sources accounted for less than 1 percent of global electricity production in 2011.

By contrast, hydropower represents slightly above 6 percent of total primary energy use and 15 percent of electricity production worldwide. China, Brazil, the United States, Canada, and Russia are the global hydropower leaders, together accounting for over 50 percent of all installed capacity. China, Vietnam, Brazil, India, and Canada accounted for 75 percent of all new installations, with China alone representing nearly half of all new capacity added in 2011.

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energy, geothermal, hydropower, renewable energy, Vital Signs Online

During the last two decades, the global installed capacity for geothermal electricity has nearly doubled. Despite this recent expansion, geothermal energy is not getting the same level of attention as other renewable energy resources, and it remains heavily underutilized. If the world were able to tap just a small portion of the Earth’s heat, we could provide everyone with clean and safe energy for centuries. Current estimates of our global potential for geothermal energy range from 35 gigawatts (GW) to 2,000 GW. However, simple technological improvements could greatly increase these projections.

For example, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study concluded that if the United States were to invest US$1 billion in geothermal research and development over the next 15 years, the country could increase its generating capacity by 100 GW by 2050. Currently, the United States is the world leader in installed capacity, but it still produces only about 3 GW of geothermal energy. Encouragingly, the same MIT study estimated that, with the proper technical improvements, 2,000 zettajoules (1 ZJ=1021 joules) of geothermal energy would be extractable in the future. This is equivalent to the estimated energy contained in the world’s petroleum reserves as of 2010. Recognizing this vast potential, some countries are finally taking action to tap into this clean energy source.

Central America, in particular, is progressing quickly as several countries begin to develop previously untouched geothermal resources. Central America is located within the Pacific Ring of Fire, a volcanically active region that has excellent potential for geothermal electricity. Estimates for the geothermal potential of the region are as high as 13,000 megawatts (MW). However, the region is harnessing only 506 MW of this energy and is still heavily dependent on expensive imported fossil fuels.

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Central America, development, El Salvador, geothermal, renewable energy

Four of seven Central American countries have utility scale wind projects.

On December 1, I attended a conversation on energy and infrastructure in Central America hosted by the Brookings Institution here in Washington, D.C. In many ways, the discussion reaffirmed the case for a socially and environmentally sustainable course of development through renewable energy. José Fernández, Assistant Secretary of State for Economic, Energy and Business Affairs at the U.S. Department of State took part, along with other knowledgeable panelists working on the region. The discussion was highly relevant to a new project here at Worldwatch on the state of renewable energy development in Central America, and the transition to a more sustainable energy future.

Energy economies in Central America vary widely. Costa Rica, for example, generates 90 percent of its energy through sources other than fossil fuels (primarily large hydropower), whereas El Salvador depends on fossil fuels for 80 percent of its electricity. According to Pablo Rodas, Chief Economist at the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), the region currently generates 45 percent of its electricity using oil, spending some $7 billion annually on imports. Costa Rica alone spends $2 billion annually on oil. This means that as policy incentives improve and financing increases, while technology costs for new renewables such as wind, biomass, geothermal, and solar go down, market forces due to high oil prices will provide the motivation for countries to look toward these alternative energy sources.

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bioenergy, Central America, geothermal, Low-Carbon Development, renewable energy, solar power, wind power

The most important renewable energy project in the United States this year could be a transmission line.

The Unsung Hero of Renewables Growth in Nevada

The One Nevada Transmission Line (ON Line), which the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) announced February 15 that it would support with a $343 million loan guarantee, is supposed to be just the initial piece of the 570-mile Southwest Intertie Project (SWIP) that will connect Wyoming, Idaho, and Nevada to the large consumption centers of Southern California and the Southwest. The project is expected to cost roughly $500 million. The 500 kilovolt, 235-mile line will have the capacity to carry 600MW, while SWIP as currently planned could eventually carry over 2,000MW.

The groundbreaking ceremony for the ON Line was actually held last October, and the line is expected to become operational by the end of 2012. ON Line is a joint venture of NV Energy and Great Basin Transmission LLC, the company behind SWIP. The groundbreaking was a well-attended affair, with the likes of Senator Harry Reid and U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar present. U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu personally announced DoE’s decision to award the loan guarantee, the first ever from the Department for a transmission project.  

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geothermal, grid infrastructure, Ken Salazar, Nevada, renewable energy, solar, Stephen Chu, transmission, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of the Interior, United States, wind