Electric Power Trends and Opportunities

I was recently reviewing a report issued last year by BMI Research, a Fitch Group company, which has since been rebranded as Fitch Solutions. The Megatrends 2050 Special Report, as it is called, suggests there are three main trends that will transform the global power sector over the next half century. They are decentralization, digitalization, and decarbonization.

For those immersed in the power industry, I don’t think the pronouncement is a revelation. Most insiders are well aware that the three Ds are impacting the electric grid and disrupting (the fourth D) the power business. In fact, POWER has been addressing each of these trends in various ways in recent years.

Concerning decentralization, for example, our brand launched the Distributed Energy Conference last year with great success. This year’s event will be held at the Gaylord Rockies Resort and Convention Center in Denver, Colorado, Oct. 30–Nov. 1. To address digitalization, POWER created the Connected Plant Conference. That event—now going into its fourth year—will be held at The Westin Peachtree Plaza in Atlanta, Georgia, Feb. 25–27, 2020. And finally, to deliver the content readers focused on decarbonization desire, POWER launched a new e-letter this year called RENEWABLE POWER Direct, which is already being delivered to more than 30,000 subscribers.

Energy Efficiency

Although the BMI report doesn’t include energy efficiency as one of its “Megatrends,” it did top the list of responses when senior industry stakeholders were asked as part of the survey what they were “investing in most heavily now.” I wrote about energy-efficiency programs in my February column, but at least one POWER reader believes the topic deserves more coverage.

The reader—a licensed professional engineer and president of a Midwest-based multi-disciplinary environmental consulting firm—wrote me an email this week saying, “What we do need is a sustained commitment to far better energy efficiency. We waste minimally 50% of all the energy we produce, and another 40% we use poorly.” The reader suggested adding insulation; using high-efficiency motors; and installing geothermal heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in both homes and businesses would do more to support a clean-energy future than mounting additional solar panels, building more wind turbines, or constructing new nuclear plants.

“In just the last area alone [geothermal HVAC], we could cut our overall energy profile by 20% to 60% in a good share of the buildings of the U.S.—every McDonalds, every Starbucks, every grocery store, most manufacturing plants, most offices, etc.,” the email says.

Geothermal Heat

The reader may be right. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released a report titled GeoVision: Harnessing the Heat Beneath Our Feet on May 30. In the report’s opening letter, penned by Dr. Susan G. Hamm, director of the DOE’s Geothermal Technologies Office, she writes, “The Earth beneath our feet contains vast energy potential, enough to power the global electric grid many times over.”

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA’s) Residential Energy Consumption survey, the average household in the U.S. consumes 22.57 MWh of energy annually. The EIA says the average U.S. household uses 43% of its energy for space heating, while another 19% goes toward water heating, though it varies considerably by household type and geographical location. With about 118 million households in the U.S., that’s a lot of energy usage that could potentially be displaced by carbon-free geothermal resources. And that doesn’t even include the energy that could be displaced in commercial and industrial facilities.

The DOE report says, “Analysis results show that, with technology improvements, geothermal power generation could increase nearly 26-fold from today—representing 60 gigawatts of installed capacity by 2050. This capacity is paired with tremendous potential for using geothermal energy for heating and cooling: GeoVision analysis models indicate the opportunity for more than 17,500 district-heating installations [totaling 320 GWth of heating capacity] as well as heating and cooling for the equivalent of more than 28 million households using geothermal heat pumps by 2050.”

Geothermal Power

There is also the potential to expand use of geothermal resources in the power sector. Under a “business-as-usual” scenario, the GeoVision report says geothermal net-summer capacity will more than double from 2.5 GW to 6 GW by 2050. But let’s face it, that’s not going to save the planet. The EIA reported there was more than 1,084 GW of installed electric generating capacity in the U.S. in 2017; the addition of 3.5 GW of new geothermal capacity over the next 30-plus years will be hard to notice outside of the communities in which it is added.

However, the DOE also evaluated growth potential under other scenarios. Under an “improved regulatory timeline” scenario, researchers found geothermal capacity could increase to nearly 13 GW by 2050—more than a five-fold increase over existing deployments. But to capture the most significant gains, geothermal technology must be perfected.

Among the key findings from the GeoVision analysis is: “Improving the tools, technologies, and methodologies used to explore, discover, access, and manage geothermal resources would reduce costs and risks associated with geothermal developments.” Tapping unconventional resources using “enhanced geothermal systems” is an important piece of that puzzle. Educating the public and supporting outreach programs could also benefit the industry.

An all-of-the-above energy strategy is often touted by lawmakers as the best path forward for the U.S. power sector; energy efficiency, geothermal heat, and geothermal power should all be part of that strategy. ■

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor.