Imagine the nation’s energy concerns being boiled away by a simple combination of hot rocks and steam.

That is the conclusion of a new study released by a panel of scientists led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The study, entitled “The Future of Geothermal Energy,” is the first comprehensive analysis of the industry’s potential in more than 30 years.

It concludes that geothermal currently produces about as much electricity as solar and wind power combined, but has the potential to supply a much greater proportion of the nation’s power.

The panel examined in particular the potential for development of enhanced geothermal system (EGS) technology, which artificially stimulates sites that do not naturally possess all of the qualities to produce geothermal power. Existing geothermal facilities are predominantly congregated in the western United States, on sites that already possess the natural combination of hot rocks and an underground water source to produce steam for generating power.

The study concludes that by aggressively pursuing heat mining, the nation’s potential for geothermal development is vastly increased. The process involves drilling wells to reach subterranean hot rocks and connecting them to a fractured rock region that has been artificially stimulated to allow water to flow through and generate steam.

Geothermal power developed in this manner presents several advantages over other power sources, the panel concluded. It does not generate the same pollutants as traditional fossil fuels. It leaves a relatively small footprint on the landscape compared to other energy-generating facilities because most of the activity takes place underground. Because it does not rely on sunlight or weather conditions, geothermal can produce power constantly, night or day, unlike solar and wind power. Finally, with aggressive use of EGS technology, the potential for geothermal development is enormous because developable sites exist across the United States.

The panel makes several recommendations to fully develop the nation’s geothermal power resources, which, the study concludes, could generate up to 100,000 megawatts of power nationally in 50 years, roughly one-tenth of the total generating capacity in the nation today.                EC