Currently, geothermal resources only provide cost-competitive low-carbon, steady power generation in specific geographic regions - a fraction of the U.S. geothermal potential.  Technical barriers exist that restrain expanding geothermal energy’s geographic footprint.

The DOE Geothermal Technologies Office (GTO) has adopted the following Strategic Goals to reach geothermal energy’s full potential:

  • Strategic Goal 1: Drive toward a carbon-free electricity grid by supplying 60 gigawatts (GW) of Enhanced Geothermal System (EGS) and hydrothermal resource deployment by 2050.
  • Strategic Goal 2: Decarbonize building heating and cooling loads by capturing the economic potential for 17,500 GDH installations and by installing GHPs in 28 million households nationwide by 2050.
  • Strategic Goal 3: Deliver economic, environmental, and social justice advancements through increased geothermal technology deployment. [1]

Towards that end, the GTO prioritizes research, development, demonstration, and deployment (RDD&D) in the following related geothermal categories: 1) Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS), 2) Hydrothermal Resources, 3) Low Temperature Resources, and 4) Data Modeling, and Analysis.

Technical Barriers to Geothermal Power Production Development

Geothermal energy must overcome significant barriers in order to realize full deployment. The subsurface nature of geothermal is primary among these challenges, which leads to both technical barriers (e.g., the need for better exploration technologies), and nontechnical barriers (e.g., land access and permitting). Critical geothermal research areas needed to address these challenges and barriers are spelled out in the Geothermal Technologies Office (GTO) Multi-Year Program Plan (FY 2022-2026), and include:

  • Exploration and characterization: Barriers include cost-prohibitive data collection; and limited public data availability; as well as the low spatial resolution of temperature, permeability, fluid, chemistry, and stress distribution in the subsurface and the high-cost of invasive drilling and testing needed to understand subsurface features.
  • Subsurface Accessibility: Barriers exist around drilling in high-temperature environments needing specialized materials and tool designs; hard, fractured rock formations translating to lower drilling rates and increased costs; limited use of more advanced and costly technologies for subsurface access; and larger well diameters and more extensive well construction requirements that result in higher well-development costs.
  • Subsurface Enhancement and Sustainability: Barriers include high reservoir stimulation technology costs; limitations to existing numerical models to simulate subsurface enhancement activities; lack of subsurface capabilities to manipulate the subsurface and control physical changes; and low-resolution scales to characterize the physical state of the reservoir over operational lifetimes with unacceptable levels of uncertainty.
  • Data, Modeling, and Analysis: Nontechnical barriers to geothermal deployment include project permitting; modeling and validating the economics of geothermal technologies; collecting and disseminating data for stakeholder use; and assessing the environmental and economic effects of geothermal. [2]

Today, the geothermal industry is small, and technology advancement would be slow or even nonexistent without Federal funding of geothermal RDD&D projects. For FY2023, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), through the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE), requested $202 million in funding to support the deployment of geothermal energy in both the electric and non-electric sectors.[3]

Federal funding for Geothermal Technologies is outlined in the following table.

Source: DOE FY2023 Congressional Budget Justification (Volume 4)

The following provides a brief description of the RDD&D efforts funded under the four categories:

  • Enhanced Geothermal Systems: The Request targets field demonstration projects in both Subsurface Accessibility R&D, including directed efforts on EGS focused drilling and well completion, and Subsurface Enhancement & Sustainability R&D, including reservoir creation. Within Subsurface Enhancement and Sustainability R&D, the Request includes an increase to provide funding for the new EGS Greenfield Demonstration initiative to demonstrate EGS viability in green-field environments and continuing the Wells of Opportunity initiative. Within Subsurface Accessibility, EGS will provide significant funding for the new EGS Drilling and Well Construction initiative and the second year of GEODE, an initiative intended to help transition and transfer between the oil and gas and geothermal sectors. The Request includes funding for the highly successful Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy (FORGE) initiative under the FORGE activity. The Request provides funding for work with rural communities and Tribes for a Hybrid EGS/Deep Direct Use demonstration initiative within the Resource Maximization R&D (see below) activity.[4]
  • Hydrothermal Resources: The Request prioritizes funding for Exploration and Characterization R&D for a new initiative focused on working with Federal agencies to determine the feasibility of installing geothermal power production on Federal property and continuation of collaborative work with the U.S. Geological Survey. The increase includes funding for work for critical materials research, specifically follow-on research from the FY 2021 Geothermal Lithium Extraction Prize, under the Resource Maximization R&D activity, and the Subsurface Accessibility R&D Activity includes a focus on the GEODE[5]Learn more.
  • Low Temperature and Coproduced Resources: The Request prioritizes funding for efforts under the Resource Maximization R&D Activity in the Low Temperature & Coproduced Resources subprogram, including a strong focus on technical assistance in the Community Geothermal Heating and Cooling for Food and Agriculture initiative, on demonstrating the potential of Reservoir Thermal Energy Storage, part of the DOE Energy Storage Grand Challenge, and technical assistance for direct use geothermal in community and sports facilities.[6]Learn more.
  • Data, Modeling, and Analysis: The Request focuses on cross-EERE analysis and demonstration as well as continuing to stand up a significant analysis capability. The increase will provide funding for analytic support for streamlining geothermal permitting on Federal lands and improved data ingestion, processing, and dissemination. The Request also provides funding for Geothermal Grid Valuation Technical Assistance and for Technical Assistance to Support Community Capacity building, including activities to help a variety of communities transition to clean energy.[7]

As research progresses, new needs and technology gaps surface. The DOE releases funding opportunities that identify in detail current gaps and solutions sought. To further the development of geothermal energy technologies, the GTO partners with industry, academia, and research facilities. Competitive solicitations, issued as Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs), are the principal mechanism used to contract for cost-shared research, development, demonstration, and deployment projects.

GTO has offered several geothermal-related FOAs in 2022:

  • Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) - 2022 Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) Pilot Demonstrations (DE-FOA-0002749) - Information collected from this RFI will be used by DOE for planning purposes to develop the EGS Pilot Demonstrations FOA
  • Notice of Intent (NOI) for Community Geothermal Heating and Cooling Design and Deployment (DE-FOA-0002661) – to inform interested parties of EERE’s intention to issue this FOA in the near term. The FOA is expected to support community-scale objectives in defined geographic areas.
  • Geothermal Drilling Technology Demonstration Campaign (DE-FOA-0002656) - targets technology developments that will provide significant improvements in drilling performance in commercial geothermal settings.

See EERE Funding Opportunity Announcements and Geothermal Technologies Office Open Funding Opportunities for more information on funding opportunities.

Other types of funding announcements include Notices of Technical Assistance, Notices of Intent, Prizes & Competitions, and Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Programs.[8]  The December 2021, DOE SBIR/STTR Phase 1 Release 2 solicitation (FY 2022) included one geothermal-related topic – “EERE Joint Topic: Community-Driven Solutions For A Just And Equitable Energy Transition”.

Updated June 2022 by Diane M Long