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U.S. Bureau of Land Management Looks to NREL for Geothermal Technical Support

March 2, 2016

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has entered into an interagency agreement with the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to provide technical support and assistance in the development of renewable energy from geothermal resources on public lands. This agreement represents an expansion of NREL's existing and developing relationship with the BLM, specifically in the area of geothermal development.

NREL and the BLM began working together on the assessment and development of renewable energy on public lands over a decade ago. In 2003, the BLM and NREL established a partnership to identify and evaluate renewable energy resources on public lands in the West. Renewable energy resources in the assessment included wind, solar, photovoltaics, biomass, and geothermal. The resulting report, Assessing the Potential for Renewable Energy on Public Lands, was a benchmark report used by the BLM in making decisions on prioritizing land-use planning activities in order to increase industry's development and use of renewable energy resources on public lands.

Industry received an immediate benefit from the report in that areas of high potential for development were identified and resulted in the filing of over 40 applications to further study the resources on BLM-managed lands for potential development. The year preceding the study saw only two renewable energy development applications. Since 2009, the BLM has approved 34 solar energy projects, 11 wind energy projects, and 15 geothermal power plants. Ten of the 15 geothermal power plants are in operation.

The BLM has the authority to lease 245 million "high geothermal potential" acres of public lands. Historically, geothermal potential has been limited to geographic areas with sufficient fluid, heat, and permeability at depth, which is most commonly found in western U.S. states and Alaska. A relatively new and developing method of tapping into geothermal energy, called enhanced geothermal systems, could increase geothermal energy capacity in the United States and expand geothermal resource potential to new geographic areas across the country.

Since 2009, NREL has been working with the BLM on a continuous basis to help implement its renewable energy program including performing market studies on transmission corridors, technical assessments, power sector models, conducting trainings on renewable technology integration and transmission, and presenting high-level policy briefings. Total megawatts (MW) of renewable energy projects approved on public lands since 2009 have include almost 10,000 MWs of solar energy  and 5,000 MWs of wind energy, and  more than 600 MWs of geothermal energy, for over a total of 15,000 MWs of approved capacity. 

This new interagency agreement with the BLM specifically employs NREL's deep geothermal expertise and technical assistance capabilities to help establish more effective ways to manage geothermal resources and operations on federal lands. In this new agreement, NREL will assist the BLM through technical and analytical expertise on geothermal inspection and enforcement, induced seismicity, and classification. Several reports, studies, and other tools will be developed aimed at providing assistance to the BLM and its geothermal program.

—Wayne Hicks