Geothermal energy developers plan to pump 91 million litres of water into the side of a dormant volcano in Oregon to demonstrate new technology they hope will give a boost to a green energy sector that has yet to live up to its promise.
They hope the water comes back to the surface fast enough and hot enough to create cheap, clean electricity that isn’t dependent on sunny skies or stiff breezes – without shaking the earth and rattling the nerves of nearby residents.
Renewable energy has been held back by cheap natural gas, weak demand for power and waning political concern over global warming.
Efforts to use the earth’s heat to generate power, known as geothermal energy, have been further hampered by technical problems and worries that tapping it can cause earthquakes.
Even so, the federal government, Google and other investors are interested enough to bet $43m on the Oregon project.
They are helping AltaRock Energy of Seattle and Davenport Newberry Holdings of Stamford, Connecticut, demonstrate whether the next level in geothermal power development can work on the flanks of Newberrry Volcano, located about 30km south of Bend, Oregon.
“We know the heat is there,” said Susan Petty, president of AltaRock. “The big issue is can we circulate enough water through the system to make it economic.”
The heat in the earth’s crust has been used to generate power for more than a century.
Engineers gather hot water or steam that bubbles near the surface and use it to spin a turbine that creates electricity. Most of those areas have been exploited.
To tap that heat – and grow geothermal energy from a tiny niche into an important source of green energy – engineers are working on a new technology called Enhanced Geothermal Systems.
“To build geothermal in a big way beyond where it is now requires new technology, and that is where EGS comes in,” said Steve Hickman, a research geophysicist with the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California.
Wells are drilled deep into the rock and water is pumped in, creating tiny fractures in the rock, a process known as hydroshearing.
Cold water is pumped down production wells into the reservoir, and the steam is drawn out.
Similar to fracking
Hydroshearing is similar to the process known as hydraulic fracturing, used to free natural gas from shale formations. But fracking uses chemical-laden fluids, and creates huge fractures.
Pumping fracking wastewater deep underground for disposal likely led to recent earthquakes in Arkansas and Ohio.
Fears persist that cracking rock deep underground through hydroshearing can also lead to damaging quakes. EGS has other problems. It is hard to create a reservoir big enough to run a commercial power plant.
Progress has been slow. Two small plants are online in France and Germany. A third in downtown Basel, Switzerland, was shut down over earthquake complaints. A project in Australia has had drilling problems.
A new international protocol is coming out at the end of this month that urges EGS developers to keep projects out of urban areas, the so-called “sanity test”, said Ernie Majer, a seismologist with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
It also urges developers to be upfront with residents so they know exactly what is going on.