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Mission: to characterize and assess geothermal energy resources in the United States and to work with the Department of Energy and other partners to advance the technologies applied to discover, characterize, and utilize those resources.

Geothermal energy is a significant source of renewable electric power in the western United States and, with advances in exploration and development technologies, a potential source of a large fraction of baseload electric power for the entire country.  The USGS Geothermal Resource Investigations Project is focused on advancing geothermal research through a better understanding of geothermal resources and the impacts of geothermal development.  This is achieved by applying a wide range of research methods to characterize resource occurrences, perform monitoring, and develop resource assessments.  The project team works closely with a number of external collaborators from federal and state agencies, academia and industry on projects throughout the US and internationally (provide link to map of field study areas). 

Overview

Map: Geothermal Resource Study Areas

U.S. map showing current Geothermal Resource Study Areas.

Based on current projections, the United States faces the need to increase its electrical power generating capacity by approximately 300,000 Megawatts-electrical (MWe) over the next 20 years. A critical question for future energy planning is the extent to which geothermal resources can contribute to this increasing demand for electricity. Geothermal energy constitutes one of the nation’s largest sources of renewable and environmentally benign electric power, yet the installed capacity of approximately 3000 MWe falls short of the estimated resources. 

The USGS 2008 National geothermal resource assessment (provide link to 2008 assessment) estimated potential power production capacity from identified and undiscovered conventional geothermal resources at approximately 40,000 MWe.  In addition, a provisional evaluation of the potential from Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) was estimated to be approximately 518,000 MWe.  This indicates that substantial geothermal resources are available to contribute to the nation’s electric power mix.

Still, significant questions remain regarding the nature and extent of undiscovered conventional geothermal resources as well as the viability of EGS as a new technology for producing geothermal electric power. This project is focused on addressing these issues as well as producing comprehensive databases of geothermal information compiled in the course of the assessment work, expanding the scope of the 2008 assessment to lower temperatures and other unconventional geothermal resource types, and conducting further research into the nature of geothermal resources in order to develop improved methodologies for future assessments.  

The project addresses key issues related to geothermal resources through a number of activities:

  • Database development - compiling and making publicly-available relevant data from geothermal exploration, development and assessment studies
  • Resource Assessments - developing improved techniques for assessing geothermal resources and expanding the national assessment to cover both conventional and unconventional geothermal resources
  • Hydrothermal field studies - conducting field investigations and modeling to understand the spatial and temporal occurrence, and evolution of targeted, prioritized natural hydrothermal systems.
  • Enhance Geothermal Systems (EGS) – characterizing the unconventional Enhanced/Engineered Geothermal Systems (EGS) resource base and evaluating the implications of EGS development.
  • Other unconventional resources – studying low temperature and sedimentary basin geothermal resources (from thermal aquifers to deep basin brines) to characterize their resource potential and understand the factors controlling their formation.
  • Impacts of geothermal development - monitoring and modeling the effects of geothermal production including Induced seismicity associated with fluid injection, as well as impacts that expanding production may have on groundwater and vegetation.

 

Research Highlights

Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) used for Geothermal Research.

September 1-13, 2012, the USGS led a NASA-funded project, where a team of scientists and engineers, collected magnetic data using ground surveys and an aircraft that can fly without a pilot or crew, called an unmanned aerial system, or UAS, to map the geophysics below the surface of Surprise Valley, CA. The UAS shown here is known as SIERRA (Sensor Integrated Environmental Remote Research Aircraft).

The Geothermal Project team is leading an effort, in collaboration with NASA Ames and a number of other institutions from academia and industry, developing Unmanned Aerial Systems for collecting airborne data to aid geothermal research. 

 

Image: Akutan Hot Springs

Akutan Island, in Alaska’s east-central Aleutian Islands, hosts the City of Akutan and is home to the largest seafood production facility in North America. It also hosts Akutan Volcano, one of the most active volcanoes in the United States. Read the full story, "USGS Potential Geothermal Resources for Akutan, Alaska."  (Photo by Deborah Bergfeld, USGS)