Kevin Bullis

A View from Kevin Bullis

Stimulus Funding for Solar and Geothermal

President Obama announced the funding at a solar-powered Air Force Base.

  • May 27, 2009

Speaking at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada on Wednesday, President Obama announced $467 million in funding for solar and geothermal power from the recovery bill signed in February. Nellis gets a quarter of its power from a recently installed 72,000 panel solar farm.

According to the Department of Energy, the $350 million of this funding that’s designated for geothermal dwarves previous funding for that technology. Of that money, $140 million will be for demonstrations of geothermal energy in new areas, including oil fields and places where temperatures are lower than are normally required for generating electricity. And $80 million will fund enhanced geothermal energy–an experimental approach to geothermal that would extract heat from rock that’s not currently accessible by creating “engineered reservoirs.” This will involve engineers drilling two holes deep into the earth’s crust to reach hot rock. Using a version of technology that’s currently employed to help free natural gas and oil, the rock will be fractured, allowing water pumped into one hole to percolate through to the other. As it does, the water gets heated up and hot water and steam returns to the surface to drive a turbine, generating electricity. It could be an abundant source of energy, but no one knows for sure if it can work economically. The remaining money will go to support techniques for exploring for geothermal and a detailed assessment of national geothermal resources.

Obama also announced $117.6 in funding for developing better solar panels and concentrated solar modules, as well as funding for encouraging the deployment of existing solar technology. “We pioneered solar technology, but we’ve fallen behind countries like Germany and Japan in generating it, even though they get less sun than we do,” he said. The new funding is supposed to help counteract this trend. “We can remain the world’s leading importer of oil, sending our money and our wealth away, or we can become the world’s leading exporter of clean energy,” he said.

All told, most of the money will go for research and development. That’s essential for the long term health of the economy and for making solar and advanced geothermal competitive with other sources of energy. But it’s hard to see why it’s in the stimulus package since it doesn’t seem likely to create many jobs in the short term.

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