Betting on Steam 

The Obama administration is boosting its investment in renewable, geothermal power. But will it solve our energy problems?

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"Some companies feel that it gets blown out of proportion," he continued. "Some companies are sweating to get their 50-megawatt power plants up and built, and here you've got a professor talking about tens of thousands of megawatts."

But you can hardly blame the cheerleaders. Science has proven the resource exists, and begun to quantify its incredible potential. The US government has shown more than a passing interest in the technology, and private developers have reached important early milestones. California Energy Commissioner Karen Douglas even remarked in January that geothermal could well become California's "bread and butter" baseload power source, AOL Energy reported, by the time its two nuclear plants are decommissioned around 2050.

In the coming years, more and more traditional geothermal plants will go online throughout the West. A recent report from the Geothermal Energy Association identifies 130 projects in various stages of development across twelve states. Thirty-one are in California, not including Calpine's expansion plans at The Geysers, which had not yet been approved. The company also is in the early stages of developing two plants near Mount Shasta.

Calpine, one of North America's leading power producers with 75 natural gas plants scattered across the country — including in Pittsburg, Antioch, and San Jose, and one under construction in Hayward — relishes its role as the world's largest generator of geothermal energy. However, even a $17.5 billion corporation with industry-leading expertise derived from decades in the business can't bend geothermal's future to its will. "We hit the ball," said Calpine engineer Tim Conant, "and now we're just waiting on the market."

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story mistakenly attributed the quotation beginning “Roughly half of the total project costs …” to Steve Ponder. It was in fact Bill Glassley of the California Geothermal Energy Collaborative who said that. We also misspelled the name of Calpine engineer Tim Conant.

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