SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Geothermal power can play a key role in expanding renewable energy sources in California and the United States, according to experts at the National Geothermal Summit.

The Wednesday, Aug. 8, summit brought together legislators, energy producers, researchers and geologists to discuss the future of geothermal energy — sustainable thermal power generated and stored in the earth. They concluded that while solar and wind power are popular choices for alternative energy, geothermal has a number of untapped resources that, when discovered, should improve geothermal power's contribution to California's and the nation's energy grids.

California State Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, chair of the state’s Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee, felt that there is great potential to expand the power source's impact statewide despite the fact that geothermal energy production has been “flat” over the past 15 years.

“Solar may get a lot of the attention because it's glitzy, it's glamorous maybe, and I know politicians love to tout and cut ribbons on solar facilities, but geothermal is what we call 'renewable gold,'” Padilla said. “Because of its attributes, it's very attractive and should always play a role in our energy portfolio.”

Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez, D-Coachella, agreed and said that geothermal power has a strong future in California. He admitted, however, that regulatory hurdles are preventing geothermal energy from becoming more prominent in California's energy mix. Strides have been made with the California Public Utilities Commission to remove those barriers, Perez said, but he continues to work with stakeholders to further support the use and export of geothermal power.

In addition, despite the abundance of renewable energy resources in California, Perez was disappointed that the state continues to purchase a significant amount of energy from neighboring states and Mexico.

“The state of Nevada … has 31 renewable energy projects in the queue that total more than 5,500 megawatts that will be delivering energy to the state of California,” Perez said. “Those are lost jobs, investment and economic development opportunities for Californians.”

Carla Peterman, commissioner of the California Energy Commission, identified some of the other challenges facing geothermal energy's penetration into California. One is that that there are limited financial incentives available from public resources for geothermal developers to tap into and use. Mitigation of negative environmental impacts and the ability to deliver power are also of concern, she said.

Brian Heaton  | 

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.