We are standing on a balcony outside Iceland's Hellisheidi geothermal power plant, newly built on the side of an active volcanic mountain in Hengill. It's pretty cold, but we are wreathed in warm steam that started out in the center of the Earth. Some of the turbines have been humming since 2006, but the plant is still under construction, on its way to producing 300 megawatts of electricity and (beginning in 2009) 400 megawatts of heat energy to warm factories and households.
Geothermal energy is not zero emissions, but it's very clean in comparison to coal- or oil-fired plants being built all over the world. When it's completed, the plant will emit 24,300 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year, adding 0.74 percent to the country's carbon burden. By contrast, the state of Kansas recently turned down a pair of 700-megawatt coal plants that would have produced 11 million tons of CO2 annually.
Although Iceland has vast geothermal potential and is only tapping a small percentage of it, this small country simply doesn't need any more electricity generation for its population of just over 300,000. In fact, that's why political leaders encouraged the construction of electricity-hungry aluminum plants (which currently consume 75 percent of Iceland's power).
Iceland has cutting-edge technical knowledge about geothermal production, and That's why its companies, banks and government officials are starting to look mostly at projects abroad. Glitnir Bank, for instance, has $40 billion in assets, and a focus on sustainable energy projects, particularly geothermal. The western U.S., for instance, is geologically favored. According to Glitnir, California has the potential of 7,500 megawatts of geothermal energy, more than Iceland's 5,800 megawatts.
Glitnir projects that installed capacity of international geothermal could grow 16-fold in the next 20 years, with North America at the top of the list. Asia, southern Europe, eastern Africa and western South America all have strong geothermal resources, with a potential development of 148,500 megawatts.
Geothermal is 9.4 percent of U.S. renewable energy consumption today, but (despite the Bush Administration cutting the budget for geothermal research) it could go much higher. The states with significant resources (aside from California) are all in the west and include Nevada, Utah, Washington, Oregon and Alaska. As incentives, most of these states have Renewable...