Filipinos Draw Power From Buried Heat

On the Philippine island of Leyte, the development of geothermal energy sources has been highly successful in recent years. Geothermal power now accounts for a third of the electricity generated in the Philippines. Video by Blaine Harden/The Washington Post, Photos by AP
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 4, 2008

ORMOC, Philippines -- Ferdinand Marcos, the despot who ruled here for 21 years, is remembered mainly for the staggering quantity of his wife's shoes. But there is another Marcos legacy, and it is drawing new attention at a time of high oil prices, global warming and urgent questions about the role of government in alternative energy development.

Reacting to the early 1970s oil shock, Marcos created a major government program to find, develop and generate electricity from hot rocks deep in the ground. Since then, the Philippine government has championed this form of energy.

Geothermal power now accounts for about 28 percent of the electricity generated in the Philippines. With 90 million people, about 40 percent of whom live on less than $2 a day, this country has become the world's largest consumer of electricity from geothermal sources. Billions of dollars have been saved here because of reduced need for imported oil and coal.

"Goes to show that things aren't always the way we might expect," said Roland N. Horne, a Stanford University expert on geothermal power who has visited this country more than 20 times. "The Philippines would be in hugely worse shape without geothermal as an indigenous energy source."

In installed geothermal power capacity, the country ranks No. 2 in the world, narrowly trailing the United States, which has far more geothermal potential, far more engineering talent and far greater demand for clean sustainable power.

But unlike in the Philippines, government policy in the United States has been inconsistent. In 2006, the Bush administration cut most geothermal spending -- federal programs that received as much as $100 million a year in the 1980s shrank to $5 million. Research projects were dismantled. Scientists in the field had to find other jobs.

"Most of the federal infrastructure, the laboratories and the researchers are now gone," said Karl Gawell, executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association in Washington.

As oil and coal prices soared in the past year, and as popular demand increased for alternative energy sources, the Bush administration rediscovered geothermal. It has proposed spending $90 million over three years on research.

"That's the goods news, but the bad news is that we are going to have to relearn a lot of what the people who we just let go learned over the past 20 years," Gawell said. "The problem with our government's approach to alternative energy is that it is too short-term. You need a sustained commitment to reach this huge energy base."

At early stages of development, geothermal energy has historically been dependent in most countries on high-risk, long-term investment made by governments, not private companies.

While Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, has said little about geothermal energy, Sen. Barack Obama, his Democratic opponent, has said renewable energy -- which includes wind, solar and geothermal -- should generate 10 percent of the country's electricity within four years.

The figure now is about 4 percent, of which less than 1 percent is geothermal. But geothermal offers reliability advantages over solar and wind, mostly because geothermal fields do not stop producing power at night or when the wind stops blowing.

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