Quantifying the undiscovered geothermal resources of the United States

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In 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) released summary results of an assessment of the electric power production potential from the moderate- and high-temperature geothermal resources of the United States (Williams et al., 2008a; USGS Fact Sheet 2008-3082; In the assessment, the estimated mean power production potential from undiscovered geothermal resources is 30,033 Megawatts-electric (MWe), more than three times the estimated mean potential from identified geothermal systems: 9057 MWe. The presence of significant undiscovered geothermal resources has major implications for future exploration and development activities by both the government and private industry. Previous reports summarize the results of techniques applied by the USGS and others to map the spatial distribution of undiscovered resources. This paper describes the approach applied in developing estimates of the magnitude of the undiscovered geothermal resource, as well as the manner in which that resource is likely to be distributed among geothermal systems of varying volume and temperature. A number of key issues constrain the overall estimate. One is the degree to which characteristics of the undiscovered resources correspond to those observed among identified geothermal systems. Another is the evaluation of exploration history, including both the spatial distribution of geothermal exploration activities relative to the postulated spatial distribution of undiscovered resources and the probability of successful discoveries from the application of standard geothermal exploration techniques. Also significant are the physical, chemical, and geological constraints on the formation and longevity of geothermal systems. Important observations from this study include the following. (1) Some of the largest identified geothermal systems, such as The Geysers vapor-dominated system in northern California and the diverse geothermal manifestations found in Yellowstone National Park, are unique in North America and highly unlikely to have counterparts with equivalent characteristics among the systems comprising the undiscovered resources. (2) Historical geothermal exploration has been limited in both the effectiveness of techniques employed and spatial coverage, since most exploration has targeted areas associated with surface thermal manifestations in the most easily accessible lands. (3) As noted by other investigators, in general, the hottest and largest geothermal systems are those with heat sources arising from recent magmatic activity. Consequently, a larger fraction of the undiscovered resource is associated with those areas favorable to the formation of this type of geothermal system, including some relatively remote areas, such as the Aleutian volcanic arc in Alaska.

Study Area

Publication type Conference Paper
Publication Subtype Conference Paper
Title Quantifying the undiscovered geothermal resources of the United States
Volume 33
Year Published 2009
Language English
Publisher GRC Transactions
Contributing office(s) Geology, Minerals, Energy, and Geophysics Science Center
Description 8 p.
Larger Work Type Conference Paper
Larger Work Title Geothermal Resources Council Transactions
Conference Title Geothermal Resources Council 2009 Annual Meeting
Conference Location Reno, Nevada
Conference Date October 4-7, 2009
Country United States
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
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