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CAMBRIDGE, Mass.–Dan Reicher, the director of climate and energy initiatives at, says we’re standing on a great untapped source of renewable energy: enhanced geothermal.

Reicher spoke on Tuesday to university students at the announcement of the winners of the Clean Energy Prize organized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and sponsored in part by utility NStar.

Dan Reicher, Google’s director of energy and climate initiatives.

(Credit:Martin LaMonica/china-heatpump)

In addition to talking up clean energy, Reicher said Google will “very soon” launch PowerMeter, its Web-based home energy-monitoring software that is now in private beta. The software can now monitor homes’ appliance energy consumption, but over time Google will add features to let consumers take advantage of cheaper, off-peak electricity rates and demand-response programs.

Although it’s core business is search, Google actively promotes renewable energy and efficiency. It has a fleet of plug-in vehicles powered by a very large solar array and is trying to influence policy makers to encourage a more high-tech approach to energy.

Google has also invested in a handful of energy companies, including an enhanced geothermal systems outfit AltaRock Energy, solar thermal provider BrightSource Energy, and wind company Makani Power.

During his talk, Reicher singled out enhanced geothermal as the most underserved area with great potential: “We have three times the potential of wind…and now we’ve got the oil and gas companies interested.”

There are already many geothermal power plants operating in areas where there is underground heat that can be converted into steam to make electricity.

Enhanced geothermal technology calls for pumping water deep underground, making cracks in the rock to create a reservoir of water that is heated by the earth.

Reicher said the big advantage of enhanced geothermal is that it can be done nearly everywhere in the U.S. He said even places like Maine have sufficient underground heat, although drilling must be done three to ten kilometers down. Oil and gas companies are well suited for this business since they know about drilling and geology.

A diagram of enhanced geothermal system where water is pumped underground at high pressure to crack rock and then the heated water is recuperated to make steam.

(Credit:Department of Energy)

Although the potential is great, Reicher said the commercialization risk is high as well. “I don’t want to oversell this. We have a long way to go,” he said. The recovery act passed earlier this year puts aside $400 million for research in geothermal.

Computing can play a significant role in enhanced geothermal system by providing geological models and simulations. In general, Google expects to see a growing role for IT in energy technology, Reicher said.

“We believe that fundamentally there’s an intersection between information technology and energy technology. IT and ET–that’s where we are heading in part at Google,” he said.

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