U.S. Energy Information Administration logo
Skip to sub-navigation

Today in Energy

July 30, 2020

Most U.S. utility-scale geothermal power plants built since 2000 are binary-cycle plants

U.S. annual geothermal capacity additions by technology
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Preliminary Monthly Electric Generator Inventory

Utility-scale geothermal power plants in the United States use either steam power or a binary cycle to generate electricity. Of the 2,558 megawatts (MW) of geothermal power plant capacity currently operating in the United States, 1,826 MW of capacity is from steam-powered plants and 731 MW of capacity is from binary-cycle powered plants. Unlike steam-powered geothermal power plants, which use steam directly from a geothermal well to spin a turbine and generate electricity, binary-cycle geothermal power plants use a heat exchanger to take heat from the hot water to heat a secondary fluid that then spins a turbine.

A little more than 70% of the geothermal capacity was built before the year 2000, mostly using steam-powered technology. Newer plants, however, are predominately binary. Of the 735 MW of capacity built since the turn of the century, nearly 90% is binary-cycle capacity.

All of the geothermal plants in the United States are located in the western part of the country, mostly in California or Nevada. California has 91% of the country’s steam-powered capacity, and 65% of binary-cycle capacity is found in Nevada.

U.S. geothermal capacity by state and technology
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Preliminary Monthly Electric Generator Inventory

Geothermal plants are geographically limited to areas with hydrothermal resources, which are naturally occurring underground reservoirs of steam and hot water. The steam and hot water can be used for power generation by drilling a well into the reservoir and piping them to the surface. The hot water or steam powers a turbine, which generates electricity. The type of geothermal power plant technology used depends on the characteristics of the reservoir.

There are two types of steam-powered geothermal plants, dry steam and flash. A dry steam plant operates in reservoirs that primarily produce steam at the surface of the well. The steam produced from the reservoir turns the turbines’ blades to generate power, and as the steam cools, it is reinjected into the reservoir as water.

A flash plant operates in reservoirs that produce a mix of steam and hot water. The steam in the reservoir is separated from the water and is sent to the turbines to generate electricity. The remaining water is flashed, or vaporized, into steam in low pressure tanks and directed to the turbines. Dry steam and flash plants typically have reservoir temperatures of 400°F to 650°F, and they range from 3,000 feet to 10,000 feet deep.

power plant types
Source: U.S. Department of Energy, Geovision 2019

Binary cycle plants are used for lower temperature reservoirs (200°F to 330°F). These plants pump hot water from the reservoir through a heat exchanger, where the heat is transferred to a secondary working fluid with a lower boiling point than water. The working fluid vaporizes and passes through the turbine, generating electricity, while the water is returned to the reservoir.

Currently, the United States has 93 binary cycle generators, averaging 8 MW of capacity each, and 79 steam generators that average 23 MW each. Dry steam and flash plants, which require rarer high-temperature, shallow reservoirs, have higher power output and are, therefore, more economically efficient than binary plants. However, because binary plants can operate at reservoirs with lower temperatures, they have more options for suitable locations.

New technologies are being developed that would allow geothermal plants to operate in areas that are currently not feasible for steam or binary plants. These areas could provide up to 500 gigawatts of additional geothermal capacity. Two of these new technologies, Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) and Closed Loop Geothermal, are in the experimental phase.

Principal contributor: Vikram Linga