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New NREL Report Details Current State and Vast Future Potential of U.S. Geothermal Power and Heat


A new publication from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) showcases the current state of geothermal energy use in the United States and provides an outlook to a future where geothermal power and heat can play a key role in the national transition to a renewable, decarbonized energy system.

Providing up-to-date information and data reflecting 2019 geothermal power production and district heating markets, technologies, and trends in the United States, the report, 2021 U.S. Geothermal Power Production and District Heating Market Report, will serve as a valuable resource for policymakers, regulators, developers, researchers, engineers, financiers, and other decision-makers.

“Our previous analysis of the geothermal energy sector through DOE’s GeoVision report makes it clear that geothermal power and heat can play an important role in our energy future,” said Johney Green, NREL associate laboratory director for Mechanical and Thermal Engineering Sciences. “To reach that potential, we have technical and nontechnical barriers that need to be overcome to reduce risks and costs. This report provides a deeper understanding of the current market environment and trends and highlights challenges and opportunities for increased geothermal deployment.”

Increasing the use of geothermal energy for U.S. heating and cooling can significantly contribute to national decarbonization goals to cut U.S. emissions in half by 2030 and achieve a carbon-free electric sector by 2035. Geothermal district heating technology is mature and is currently being deployed widely in Europe and Asia.

Select market highlights from the report include:

United States geothermal power capacity increased slightly from 3.627 gigawatts (GW) to 3.673 GW from the end of 2015 through the end of 2019.
During this same timeframe, the United States brought seven new geothermal power plants online, adding 186 megawatts (MW) of nameplate capacity, while 11 plants were retired or classified as nonoperational, subtracting 103 MW of nameplate capacity.
Since late 2019, nine new geothermal Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) have been signed in four states, which include plans for the first two geothermal power plants to be built in California in a decade.
There are 23 geothermal district heating (GDH) systems, which use geothermal energy to provide heat to buildings through a distribution network, in the United States. The oldest installation dates from 1892 (Boise, Idaho), and the most recent installation was completed in 2017 (Alturas, California).
U.S. GDH systems tend to be smaller in size (average of 4 MWth) than European GDH systems (continent-wide average of about 17 MWth), and orders of magnitude smaller than the average GDH system in China (about 1,000 MWth).
“The newest market report conveys that the geothermal industry is poised to make big leaps into enhanced geothermal systems and the heating and cooling sector,” said Acting Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Kelly Speakes-Backman. “These strides outline the potential for the widespread deployment of this important renewable resource.”

Moving forward, the geothermal power sector is ready for technological innovation. Significant opportunities for expanding power production exist through cutting-edge enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) technology development, new power plant operational paradigms such as hybridization, harnessing vast coproduction potential from existing oil and gas infrastructure, and critical materials extraction from produced geothermal brines. Innovative approaches to geothermal district heating involve integrating heat pump technology and thermal energy storage, as well as implementation and optimization of energy districts.

In addition, new public and private stakeholders such as universities and companies like Microsoft and Google are embracing geothermal as an on-campus carbon-free heating and cooling solution for achieving decarbonization goals.

State-level geothermal legislation and policy development is active in California, New Mexico, Washington, Hawaii, and Nevada, focusing on geothermal contributions to aggressive decarbonization goals as well as streamlining administrative and permitting authorities for developing geothermal resources.

This report was developed by NREL researchers and Geothermal Rising, a geothermal energy industry nonprofit organization, with funding from the DOE’s Geothermal Technologies Office.

“This unique report captures domestic capacity and usage for geothermal power production and district heating and cooling,” said Jody Robins, NREL senior geothermal engineer and lead author. “The report also evaluates the impact of state and federal policy, presents current research on geothermal development, and describes future opportunities for the domestic geothermal market and industry.”

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