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Promising technology breakthroughs could soon propel geothermal energy into the mainstream of renewable development, and some legislators are seeking state investment to help New Mexico get on board.
Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, an Albuquerque Democrat, is sponsoring a new Geothermal Resources Development Act in this year’s legislative session to provide $25 million in state money for grants and loans to research and develop geothermal energy projects around the state. It would also authorize $1.1 million in annual funding to promote geothermal resources, including $600,000 for the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department and $500,000 for a new “center of excellence” at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro.
A second Ortiz y Pino bill seeks up to $10 million annually in tax breaks for geothermal projects. And, separately, Las Cruces Democrat William Soules is sponsoring a bill for tax credits of up to 30% on purchase and installation costs for ground-based heat pumps that use geothermal energy for residential, commercial and industrial heating and cooling.
None of the bills had been pre-filed as of Wednesday morning, but both senators have participated in a working group that formed in early 2022 to study geothermal development potential with experts from New Mexico Tech, New Mexico State University, Sandia National Laboratories and environmental groups.
“The working group met throughout the spring and summer, and we decided to move forward with legislation because this is too good an opportunity to pass up,” Ortiz y Pino said. “The potential for geothermal development in New Mexico is so rich, I really believe it could be the last missing piece to make alternative energy here sustainable.”
Over the next decade, it could begin providing baseload generating capacity to supply continuous power as backup for intermittent solar and wind facilities.
“It’s available 24/7, 365 days a year,” Ortiz y Pino said. “It’s always there.”
Geothermal generation is not new, with 3.7 gigawatts of domestic electricity currently provided by geothermal power plants, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
New Mexico already has one geothermal plant operating in the Animas Valley near Lordsburg in the New Mexico Bootheel that came online in 2014, providing up to 15 megawatts of electricity to Public Service Co. of New Mexico. In fact, as a state, New Mexico is ranked sixth-highest in the nation for geothermal potential by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, said NM Tech Senior Geophysicist Shari Kelly.
That’s because of the Rio Grande Rift, which runs southwest from north central New Mexico down into the bootheel, Kelly said. As underground movement slowly pulls the rift’s east and west sides apart, it creates fissures that release heat upward toward the surface, making it more accessible for geothermal development compared with other places.
“NM Tech, NMSU and others did a seismic experiment across the rift in the early 2000s,” Kelly said. “The study showed a hot underneath mantle below the upper layer of the rift that produces elevated temperatures closer to the surface.”
As precipitation accumulates in mountainous areas and penetrates into the subsurface, it forms underground reservoirs that often create hot springs around the state.
The geothermal plant near Lordsburg is tapping into one of those underground reservoirs with traditional technology that pulls up hot water to create steam that runs a turbine generator.
But, apart from underground reservoirs, a vast amount of geothermal energy also comes from hot underground rock formations that radiate immense heat, creating a huge source of untapped energy.
Now, new technology is emerging to tap into that heat like a radiator, whereby alternative liquids are circulated down from the surface through a closed-loop system of pipes to absorb the heat and create steam in a continuous flowing process, said environmentalist and working group facilitator Tom Solomon.
Until recently, traditional drilling methods prevented cutting into hard, deep, hot rock. But, today’s modern fracking and horizontal drilling technologies developed by the oil and gas industry could help open up those underground rock formations to geothermal generation. Sandia and other research entities are also developing the more advanced drill bits needed to cut through hard rock and withstand high temperatures.
Many companies are now working to harness that technology, including one Canadian firm that has undertaken experimental drilling in the bootheel.
“As that technology develops over the next decade, it could provide the extra clean energy we need to get to fully non-carbon generation in New Mexico,” Solomon told the Journal.
It could also provide alternative jobs for oil and gas industry workers, since the emerging geothermal development technology would rely on traditional drilling rigs to bore into underground rock formations, Ortiz y Pino said.
The geothermal bill advocates envision a two-phase development strategy, beginning with aggressive efforts to encourage more use of existing technology to tap geothermal energy to heat and cool buildings around the state, while also inspiring more research and development of geothermal power generation. In the second phase, which could gain momentum over the next decade, state efforts would focus on applying emerging hot-rock generation technology to build new power plants.