Systematic Review of Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Geothermal Electricity

Research output: NRELTechnical Report


The primary goal of this work was to assess the magnitude and variability of published life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emission estimates for three types of geothermal electricity generation technologies: enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) binary, hydrothermal (HT) flash, and HT binary. These technologies were chosen to align the results of this report with technologies modeled in National Renewable Energy Laboratory's (NREL's) Regional Energy Deployment Systems (ReEDs) model. Although we did gather and screen life cycle assessment (LCA) literature on hybrid systems, dry steam, and two geothermal heating technologies, we did not analyze published GHG emission estimates for these technologies. In our systematic literature review of the LCA literature, we screened studies in two stages based on a variety of criteria adapted from NREL's Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) Harmonization study (Heath and Mann 2012). Of the more than 180 geothermal studies identified, only 29 successfully passed both screening stages and only 26 of these included estimates of life cycle GHG emissions. We found that the median estimate of life cycle GHG emissions (in grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour generated [g CO2eq/kWh]) reported by these studies are 32.0, 47.0, and 11.3 for EGS binary, HT flash, and HT binary, respectively (Figure ES-1). We also found that the total life cycle GHG emissions are dominated by different stages of the life cycle for different technologies. For example, the GHG emissions from HT flash plants are dominated by the operations phase owing to the flash cycle being open loop whereby carbon dioxide entrained in the geothermal fluids is released to the atmosphere. This is in contrast to binary plants (using either EGS or HT resources), whose GHG emissions predominantly originate in the construction phase, owing to its closed-loop process design. Finally, by comparing this review's literature-derived range of HT flash GHG emissions to data from currently operating geothermal plants, we found that emissions from operational plants exhibit more variability and the median of emissions from operational plants is twice the median of operational emissions reported by LCAs. Further investigation is warranted to better understand the cause of differences between published LCAs and estimates from operational plants and to develop LCA analytical approaches that can yield estimates closer to actual emissions.
Original languageAmerican English
Number of pages53
StatePublished - 2017

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/TP-6A20-68474


  • emissions
  • geothermal
  • greenhouse gas


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