Power Engineering

Could geothermal power U.S. military bases? DOD wants to find out

As the largest energy consumer in the U.S. and one of the largest in the world, the Department of Defense (DOD) has the ability to influence markets and achieve near-immediate scale for emerging technologies.

The DOD’s interest in geothermal energy could be a shot in the arm for the firm, clean energy resource that has often lagged behind technologies like wind and solar in the U.S.

The defense agency requested information on March 7 related to powering at least 14 installations, with the potential for more, across the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The RFI is also open to the potential use of district heating and cooling through direct use heat at installations.

Private companies are invited to share information about geothermal or hybrid projects, as well as guidance on contract lengths, costs, resource availability, and potential risks.

Interested companies should reply to the RFI by April 21.

Geothermal can provide 24/7 clean energy for power generation, efficient heating and cooling, agriculture, mineral extraction, and more. However, the higher levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) often leads buyers or developers toward less expensive clean energy alternatives like wind and solar.

While geothermal cannot yet compete on price, it can compete on attributes, said Sarah Jewett, director of strategy for utility-scale geothermal developer Fervo Energy.

“The high capacity factor and ability to provide around-the-clock clean power” favors geothermal in the clean energy mix, Jewett said during a webinar on the state of geothermal energy presented by the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center.

The DOD’s recent interest in geothermal power generation comes more than a decade after a report by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) found that the “logistics and time associated with geothermal power are formidable barriers” to military use. Since that time, the landscape for geothermal has changed.

Advancements in enhanced technologies have stretched geothermal’s feasible application beyond the handful of states where favorable geology exists to support power plants.

Several of the military bases identified in the RFI are in states — California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Alaska ⁠— with existing power plants that are making use of known and explored subsurface geothermal resources. A geothermal power plant is under development in Colorado, while Arizona has high potential based on its geology and identified heat resources, experts say.

In Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma, meanwhile, there is growing interest in the potential for enhanced geothermal power generation. Those states have the ability to lean on the region’s oil and gas expertise, too.

Zachary Strauss, a geothermal policy expert, sees potential for geothermal power generation on federal and DoD lands, particularly given the public sector’s outsized capacity to move and shape markets.

Navy 1 Geothermal Project (Courtesy: U.S. Dept. of Energy)

The DOD already has some experience, he said, with the Navy 1 Geothermal Project at the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake in California. The U.S. Navy leases the 145 MW geothermal plant to Coso Operating Co., which distributes generated electricity to the southern California grid.

“With the need to electrify everything, the intermittency of renewables, and the current gap in long-term energy storage, new geothermal electricity production on DoD lands is an excellent way to stimulate the geothermal power market, and provide U.S. military installations with clean, baseload power as well as a strong resilience premium,” Strauss told Renewable Energy World.

The DOD’s RFI is in line with an executive order issued by President Joe Biden in December. Federal agencies were directed to achieve 100% carbon-free electricity by 2030; half of that amount would have to be supplied locally.

The executive order also called for net-zero emissions from overall federal operations by 2050.

The federal General Services Administration and DOD later issued a request for information regarding 24/7 carbon-free electricity procurement.

Strauss said he sees geothermal power generations as a vehicle to achieve those goals.

“Geothermal is a baseload clean power solution that offers a host of additional value streams and opportunities, from efficient heating and cooling to domestic lithium production,” he said. “The government is now poised to make everyone pay attention.”