Peterman believed workable solutions to those challenges need to be found in order to take advantage of California's geothermal resources and projects in the Imperial Valley, located in southeastern California near the Mexico border.

Despite those issues, Peterman said that geothermal remains a prominent part of the state's clean energy strategy. She noted that California has more than 40 geothermal power facilities with a generation capacity of 2,500 megawatts and more than 2,000 megawatts of capacity in various stages of development. One megawatt of electricity is enough power to light up to 1,000 average U.S. homes, according to the Electric Power Supply Association.

Looking Forward

John DiStasio, general manager and CEO of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), delivered the conference's keynote address. He said SMUD is using a diverse resource mix that includes geothermal power as an integral part of SMUD's ongoing efforts to optimize its energy portfolio.

SMUD signed an agreement with Gradient in northern Nevada for 87 megawatts of baseload renewable energy generation and expects production to begin in 2013. The utility is also looking at a prospective geothermal project in Colusa County, Calif.

“We see geothermal as kind of the ‘other white meat,’” DiStasio said. “It has all the great attributes of some of the other baseload resources, but it’s just not as well understood and awareness is not as high.”

Karen Edson, vice president of policy and client services for California ISO, which provides access to the bulk of the state’s wholesale energy transmission grid, said projections have shown that geothermal projects in California will be relatively flat in the years ahead.

The federal government is trying to change that through the funding of advanced geothermal technology R&D work, according to Doug Hollett, program manager of the U.S. Department of Energy's Geothermal Technologies Program. Uncle Sam is helping fund 43 projects related to technology advancements in geothermal energy production in California to the tune of more than $100 million.

Hollett likened the technical breakthroughs being worked on in geothermal expansion to the Mars Curiosity rover project. He said that people were initially skeptical of the forward-thinking plans put forward by engineers to land a car-sized probe on Mars. But it worked. By the same token, he expected that in time, the advancements to make geothermal energy production a more viable power source would succeed as well.

“It creates value at the end of the day,” Hollett said regarding the geothermal R&D work.

“Whether it’s unique ways of drilling wells, whether it’s imaging … these are all keys,” he added.

Brian Heaton  | 

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