Streamlining Energy Sprawl: Assessment of Geothermal Impacts on Public Lands

Date and Time
October 20, 2020 02:30 PM (PDT)–03:30 PM (PDT)

Renewable energy power generation, including geothermal, solar photovoltaics (PV), and wind, can have significant land use impacts depending on the technology and the size of the facility. At the same time, innovations across these renewable technologies are working to improve plant efficiency per acre of disturbance. Through a survey of satellite imagery and other sources, this analysis reevaluates the impact of geothermal power generation and examines the variations in land use for different geothermal technologies (binary, flash, and dry steam). Geothermal operations on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sites serve as the focus for this analysis – i.e., only active sites with federal mineral ownership for which the BLM receives royalties from power production. The results show significant variation in direct land disturbance across the operations sites and across these three geothermal technologies. Although there is variation across plants within the same geothermal technology category, dry steam plants (The Geysers) were shown to have the lowest impact, in acres per megawatt capacity and acres per gigawatt-hour generation, followed by flash steam and binary plants. Overall, direct land impacts relative to capacity and generation have declined 16-27% for facilities constructed since 2000 as compared to those constructed prior, even though most new facilities are binary plants (which traditionally had higher land disturbance). Additionally, capacity factors based on actual net production data were found to average only 50% across all operations sites, suggesting that previous estimates based on nameplate capacity only may lead to an undercounting of generation-based land disturbance metrics. Should the geothermal industry capture additional market share, improving land disturbance metrics through accurate net production and capacity data and further minimizing impacts will be increasingly important as competition over land use intensifies.

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