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I recently visited the small town in Oregon where I was born. December in Klamath Falls had left snow drifts up to the window sills. Strangely, the sidewalks were completely free of snow. Geothermal hot water was circulating under them as part of a $338 million stimulus for over 100 projects nationwide. The City Hall and Court House were also heated by geothermal hot water.

Geothermal sidewalks in Klamath Falls, Oregon. (Photo: Geothermal Education Office)

Geothermal sidewalks in Klamath Falls, Oregon. (Photo: Geothermal Education Office)

“We didn’t know it was green,” City Manager Steve Ball said. “It just made sense.”

That isn’t the whole story. Klamath Falls was one of the first cities in the world to use geothermal for electrical power generation. In the 1930s, the lights went on because turbine generators were turned by geothermal steam. Development continued during WWII and proved essential in selecting the area for a huge military base that would not depend upon a vulnerable, conventional power grid.

Oregon is now one of nine western states expanding geothermal potentials

Old Science, Big Potential

Geothermal energy is old science but a new idea for most people. Presently it only makes up 0.5 percent of America’s energy generation, but the cost-to-benefit ratio offers huge potential for more than 10 percent of the country. All that is needed are hot rocks near the surface, water and a reservoir to store the hot water. The reservoir can be a tank or just porous cracks in the rock.

Paul Hawken, Editor of Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, estimates that there is heat energy in the Earth’s core that is more than 100 billion times the current world heat consumption. His team of scientists, engineers, economists and researchers have estimated the cost-benefit of geothermal potential from the present to 2050:

  • Net Cost Today = $155.5 Billion
  • Net Gain in Energy Cost Savings = $1.02 Trillion
  • Net reduction in CO= 16.6 Gigatons


Geothermal power generation can be utility scale or private use. Homeowners have used heat pumps for decades. Clean, efficient energy heat pumps can reduce heating and cooling costs by 80 percent. Combining solar and wind with geothermal can reduce costs even more. Innovative businesses near hot springs or areas where the Earth’s crust is thin may simply drill until they reach enough heat for their needs. It is possible to build totally off-grid and generate electricity and environmental temperature control by turning a turbine before recirculating the same water in a closed system.

Fully 70 percent of the northern California coastal region is already powered by geothermal energy.

Our Final Hope? Deep Decarbonizaion

Our planet is undergoing a transition well outside the normal climate patterns of the past million years. It has been clearly established that the only significant change from the usual natural causes responsible for those patterns is emissions from human enterprise. Greenhouse gases from industrialization and the overwhelming dominance of humanity are altering the energy balance and face of the planet. The science is clear, but action has been far too slow to significantly alter those changes.

More than a half-century ago, the combined influence of human industrialization and population was clearly identified. It wasn’t until the U. N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris that the world’s nations pledged to establish policy to address those issues. This cooperative action by virtually all of the nations on Earth, known as the Paris Agreement, was unprecedented. The major powers began to set policy to reduce emissions to prevent further catastrophic global destabilization.

In 2017, under the direction of President Trump and his administration, the United States reneged on those pledges. This has not only damaged U.S. credibility, but taken the world’s biggest historical contributor of greenhouse gases away from a sustainable and economically secure transition. There is no economic justification for America’s withdrawal from the COP21 Paris Accord. The science and economic numbers are clear.

The Nesjavellir power station in southwest Iceland, a country that generates 25% of its energy via geothermal power, according to the National Energy Authority of Iceland.

The Nesjavellir power station in southwest Iceland, a country that generates 25% of its energy via geothermal power, according to the National Energy Authority of Iceland.(Photo: Gretar Ívarsson)

Less than a decade ago, limiting warming to 1.5℃ was feasible. Even five years ago, staying below 2℃ would have been possible. Today, even the herculanian effort of WWII was not equivalent to the measures now necessary to keep the world from warming more than 2℃. It still remains possible to stay under 3℃ at a cost less than 2 percent GDP. That can only happen if the following measures are undertaken immediately. If they are not taken or are delayed, there is the distinct danger that available funding will be exceeded by excessive debt. The cost of remediation from extreme events and increasing potential of wars will also grow and divert funding and action.

The economist Jeffery Sacks, Director of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (UNSDSN), has worked to identify policy to mitigate global warming and subsequent climate change. Nothing other than the prevention and removal of greenhouse gases will address this global crisis. That policy is called Deep Decarbonization. This program identifies the three pillars of policy and action necessary to achieve that goal:

  1. Improve energy efficiency and conservation
  2. Decarbonize electricity and fuels
  3. Switching energy end-uses to lower-carbon, and eventually zero-carbon, energy carriers (e.g. electricity, hydrogen and biofuels)

Realistically, the chance for 1.5℃ is passed. Remaining below 2℃ is unlikely if we don’t reach a global reduction of greenhouse gas emissions of 30 percent by 2020. The fact remains that we can still achieve a climate within civilization’s survivable capacity — under 3℃.  But this can only be achieved if we renew and focus on the goals set and agreed to by all but one of the nations in the world.

If one small city in southern Oregon recognized the potential of sustainable energy more than 80 years ago, I think a rational world can do it.

W. Douglas Smith is an environmental scientist, environmental diplomat, explorer, educator and a retired Senior Compliance Investigator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where he worked for 36 years.

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