From: Sean Ahearn, Worldwatch Institute, More from this Affiliate
Published January 11, 2013 09:06 AM

El Salvador Prioritizes Geothermal Energy Development

During the last two decades, the global installed capacity for geothermal electricity has nearly doubled. Despite this recent expansion, geothermal energy is not getting the same level of attention as other renewable energy resources, and it remains heavily underutilized. If the world were able to tap just a small portion of the Earth's heat, we could provide everyone with clean and safe energy for centuries. Current estimates of our global potential for geothermal energy range from 35 gigawatts (GW) to 2,000 GW. However, simple technological improvements could greatly increase these projections.


For example, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study concluded that if the United States were to invest US$1 billion in geothermal research and development over the next 15 years, the country couldincrease its generating capacity by 100 GW by 2050. Currently, the United States is the world leader in installed capacity, but it still produces only about 3 GW of geothermal energy. Encouragingly, the same MIT study estimated that, with the proper technical improvements, 2,000 zettajoules of geothermal energy would be extractable in the future. This is equivalent to the estimated energy contained in the world's petroleum reserves as of 2010. Recognizing this vast potential, some countries are finally taking action to tap into this clean energy source.

Central America, in particular, is progressing quickly as several countries begin to develop previously untouched geothermal resources. Central America is located within the Pacific Ring of Fire, a volcanically active region that has excellent potential for geothermal electricity. Estimates for the geothermal potential of the region are as high as 13,000 megawatts (MW). However, the region is harnessing only 506 MW of this energy and is still heavily dependent on expensive imported fossil fuels.

El Salvador, known as the "land of volcanoes," is the largest producer of geothermal electricity in the region with 204 MW of production. With approximately 24 percent of its total electricity production coming from geothermal resources, El Salvador is a world leader in the development of geothermal power.

Despite a destructive, decade-long civil war during the 1980s and two devastating earthquakes in 2001, El Salvador has managed to develop a successful geothermal energy sector. The country's existing geothermal power plants provide the national grid with electricity that is cost competitive with hydroelectric and fossil fuel generation. El Salvador plans to grow this sector in the future and to achieve 40 percent of its total electricity from geothermal by 2020.

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El Salvador volcanoes image via Shutterstock.

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