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Universities Lead the Charge to Mine the Heat Beneath our Feet
Within the next year, the Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls hopes to break ground on a project that would tap one of the most promising, and overlooked, forms of renewable power: geothermal energy—the free heat that emanates from Earth’s molten core.
The campus sits atop a large reservoir of scalding groundwater. Details are still being worked out, but if all goes as planned, a 130-foot-high drill rig will bore into the ground in the coming months. The idea is to reach 300-degree water about 6,000 feet down. The water would be piped to a small power plant, where the heat would be extracted and used to spin a turbine that would create 100 percent of the school’s electricity. The $6.5 million project would make the school one of the first entirely green-powered campuses in the world.
“It’s pretty exciting,” says John Lund, director of the college’s Geo-Heat Center which researches and promotes the use of geothermal energy. The school already has years of geothermal experience. Since the 1960s, hot groundwater has been piped through campus buildings to provide heat, saving about $1 million in annual heating bills. Hundreds of geothermal wells in Klamath Falls provide heat for homes, municipal buildings and even a microbrewery.
The power plant would be the first of its kind on a college campus. “We hope to be producing electricity by late next year,” Lund says. The project is moving forward just as a mini-boom in geothermal power production, research and exploration takes place in the West. Universities, the federal government, Google, electric utilities and even oil and gas companies are backing geothermal projects.
“Geothermal energy is hot as hell right now,” says Karl Gawell, director of the Geothermal Energy Association, an industry trade group. More than 100 geothermal power projects are underway or being considered in 13 states, according to Gawell. The reason: rising fossil fuel prices, concerns about climate change, new technologies and state laws known as renewable portfolio standards that require utilities to produce more green energy.
The boom is evident in Nevada, where plans are underway to double the state’s geothermal electricity in the next few years. The largest-ever lease sale of public lands for geothermal exploration took place here in August, when the rights to drill on 105,000 acres in Nevada were auctioned off for $28 million. The University of Nevada’s Great Basin Center for Geothermal Energy is a key player. The center’s experts and graduate students conduct research that helps companies locate geothermal resources thousands of feet underground. “We help companies improve their drilling success,” says center director Lisa Shevenell. “Drilling is the big up-front cost.” And while the school has no plans to build its own power plant like at OIT, the university is negotiating with a geothermal power company to buy enough electricity to power the school’s Reno campus and two others. “This is a great source of domestic power,” Shevenell says.
The first geothermal electricity was generated in Italy in 1904, and today about 7,000 megawatts are produced in more than 20 countries including Iceland, New Zealand, Indonesia, the Philippines and other volcanic regions. Geothermal plants large and small are operating in Hawaii, Idaho, California, Alaska, Utah and Nevada, with drilling taking place in Oregon, New Mexico and elsewhere. California is the leading geothermal power producer in the world. “California is the epicenter of geothermal electricity,” says Marilyn Nemzer of the nonprofit Geothermal Education Office. About five percent of the state’s electricity is geothermal, and the largest U.S. geothermal electric plant—the Geysers—opened in the 1960s.
Geothermal electric plants have several designs. Some use steam to power turbines. Others, such as the facility planned for the Oregon Institute of Technology, pump the hot water through a heat exchanger where it vaporizes a low-boiling-point fluid, typically a hydrocarbon. This vapor then creates the thrust to power a turbine. Geothermal plants such as these have two closed-loop systems that keep the water and hydrocarbons separate, allowing the clean groundwater to be pumped back down to replenish the reservoir. It’s expensive to build a power plant and drill wells, but “once the infrastructure is in you’ve got almost free energy,” Lund says. “It runs when the sun doesn’t shine and where the wind doesn’t blow.” In other words, geothermal energy is available 24/7, 365—unlike wind and solar.
Experts refer to this around-the-clock electric generation as base-load power. Proponents of nuclear energy often cite their industry as a reliable source of base-load power that emits no greenhouse gasses. Geothermal electricity, however, produces no nasty wastes. “Geothermal can play a major role but it tends to be ignored because people can’t see it,” Lund says. “You can see wind turbines and solar panels, but geothermal is out of sight.”
Another problem is that most of the geothermal reservoirs are in the West. Now, cutting-edge technology raises hope that geothermal energy could be produced in areas without hot groundwater. Enhanced geothermal systems, or EGS, would create geothermal reservoirs by pumping water down 10,000 feet or more to hot, dry rocks. Once heated, the injected water would be pumped to the surface and used to generate electricity as in a traditional geothermal power plant. A 2007 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says EGS could provide 100,000 megawatts of electricity by 2050, enough to satisfy 10 percent of the nation’s energy needs. After zeroing out its budget for geothermal energy in 2007, the U.S. Department of Energy has pledged $10 million in 2008 to research EGS.
For now, all eyes are on a pioneering EGS research project in the Nevada desert. Funded by federal agencies and Ormat Technologies, a leading geothermal company with projects underway from Nevada to Turkey, the project’s goal is to enhance the geothermal reservoir already being tapped by the Desert Peak power plant. “EGS is promising because it allows you to increase the size of your geothermal reservoir,” says University of Utah professor Joe Moore, a researcher with the school’s Energy and Geoscience Institute and a participant in the Desert Peak project.
Moore is conducting so-called tracer research, which traces the flow of injected water through the ground. This is done by adding a nontoxic chemical marker to the water. “We monitor the water coming up from the production well to find the tracer,” Moore says. This determines how quickly water circulates through the fractured hot rocks. “It’s not just about getting water down into the fractures,” Moore says. “You want to make sure you can get it to come back up.”
Google is a big supporter of EGS. The company’s nonprofit, Google.org, announced in August that it will invest $10 million in enhanced geothermal systems research. Nearly $500,000 of that money will go to Southern Methodist University’s Geothermal Laboratory, which will update the nation’s geothermal map to pinpoint the location and depth of available heat. Geothermal resources of the western United States are well-mapped, but data is lacking for other parts of the country. SMU students and faculty will gather and analyze data from deep wells drilled by oil and gas companies, mines and municipal water utilities. “We expect to find areas that have resources where they weren’t believed to exist,” says Maria Richards, coordinator of the SMU lab.
All of this has suddenly made geothermal a hot career. “It used to be that students looking for high-paying jobs would all go into oil and gas,” Richards says. “That’s no longer the case.” One SMU grad student recently switched his master’s degree from oil and gas research to geothermal due to abundant jobs in the sector. “This industry is growing fast and needs workers, and the student population isn’t keeping up,” says Shevenell at the University of Nevada. “Things have exploded in the past year. I’m getting calls from investors, financiers–people who know nothing about the science but who want to get involved with geothermal.”
Even the oil and gas industry is interested. The dirty little secret of oil and gas wells is that they waste vast quantities of hot groundwater. This “wastewater” is often pumped up and dumped on the ground to make it easier to extract oil and gas. If used, this water could generate 5,000 megawatts of electricity, according to the Department of Energy. “This is a big untapped source of energy,” says University of North Dakota professor Will Gosnold, who is working with oil and gas companies on geothermal initiatives.
All of this is cause for celebration among the longtime supporters of geothermal energy. “The geothermal industry has been hibernating for lack of attention,” says Curt Robinson, executive director of the Geothermal Research Council. “There is heat beneath our feet, and it is ready for us to use. This is a grand opportunity to diversify our nation’s energy portfolio.”
This story is the first of a three-part series that will explore various types of ground heat mining, and their campus applications. Look for parts two and three in the coming months! –Ed.
Geothermal Laboratory— Southern Methodist University