Geothermal Developers To Pump Water Into Volcano
January 16, 2012

Geothermal Developers To Pump Water Into Volcano

Will it spark an earthquake? Fears have arisen over plans to pour 24 million gallons of water - and $43 MILLION - into an Oregon volcano to see if it can create electricity.

Geothermal energy developers are planning to pump 24 million gallons of water into a dormant volcano in Central Oregon this summer to see whether it can create a renewable resource of energy that doesn´t rely on the weather.

The water will be pumped into Newberry Volcano -- located 20 miles south of Bend, Oregon -- to pick up heat from fractures in the base of the rock. The idea is that the heated water will then turn to steam and can then generate power.

The project, however, has been met with stiff opposition by critics who are concerned that pumping water deep into a volcano could lead to an earthquake -- based on similar events that have occurred in the past. Critics also argue that it would be extremely difficult to build a reservoir big enough to run a commercial power plant.

Even so, the federal government, Google and other investors are willing to pump $43 million of their money into the project, led by AltaRock Energy, Inc. of Oregon, and Davenport Newberry Holdings LLC of Stamford, CT.

Using the Earth´s heat to generate power is an alternative to other renewable energy sources, such as wind turbines and solar panels. But whereas these other renewable resources rely on wind and sunshine to generate enough power, geothermal resources can provide a consistent source of energy.

“We know the heat is there,” Susan Petty, president of AltaRock, told the Associated Press (AP). “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. But most of these areas have already been exploited. So engineers are now looking in places that have hot rocks, but no cracks in the rocks or water to deliver the steam.

Engineers are hoping that by tapping into this heat, they can grow geothermal energy from a small area into an important source of green energy. The new technology behind this is called Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS).

“To build geothermal in a big way beyond where it is now requires new technology, and that is where EGS comes in,” Steve Hickman, a research geophysicist with the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, told AP.

AltaRock plans to drill deep shafts into the sides of Newberry Volcano and pump in water to create tiny fractures in the rock, a process known as hydroshearing. Then they will pump in cold water down into the reservoir and draw out the steam. AltaRock said it will pour 800 gallons of water per minute into the 10,600-foot test well over a three week period. The process will produce a reservoir of cracks starting at about 6,000 feet below the surface, and reach down to 11,000 feet, and be about 3,300 feet in diameter.

Due to earthquake fears and other constraints, progress in the new technology has been slow. There are small plants similar to AltaRock´s planned project in France and Germany. A project in Australia has been plagued with drilling problems, and a plant in Basel, Switzerland, was shut down after earthquake fears.

Hydroshearing is similar to the process known as hydraulic fracturing -- or fracking -- a process used to free natural gas from shale formation. But fracking uses chemically-enhanced fluids and creates huge fractures. Pumping fracking wastewater deep underground for disposal likely led recent quakes in Arkansas and Ohio.

Fears persist that hydroshearing will likely lead to damaging temblors as well.

A new international protocol is coming out at the end of this month that urges EGS developers to keep projects out of urban areas to avoid earthquake damage. Experts believe the danger of a major quake at Newberry is low as it has no significant fault lines. It is also far enough from populated areas that property damage would be unlikely. However, the US Department of Energy (DOE) will be monitoring the project and any significant quakes would shut the project down, at least temporarily.

“That's the $64,000 question,“ Ernie Majer, a seismologist with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, told the Daily Mail. “What´s the biggest earthquake we can have from induced seismicity that the public can worry about.”

The DOE has given the project $21.5 million, which has been matched by private investors. Google offered up $6.3 million.

While there is no power plant proposed for the project, one could be operating in about 10 years, said Doug Perry, president and CEO of Davenport Newberry Holdings.

If successful, the results could be significant.

A 2008 assessment found that EGS in the West could produce half the country´s electricity.

The US Bureau of Land Management released an environmental assessment of the Newberry project last month that shows no foreseeable issues that would stop the project from going forward. However, the agency did say that it is taking public comments before making a final decision in the coming months.

“The important question we need to answer now, is how geothermal fits into the renewable energy picture, and how EGS fits. How much it is going to cost, and how much is available,” said Colin Williams, a geophysicist who compiled the assessment.

Geologists believe Newberry Volcano was once one of the tallest peaks in the Cascades, reaching an elevation of 10,000 feet. It blew its top before the last Ice Age, leaving a caldera studded with towering lava flows, two lakes, and 400 cinder cones, some 400 feet tall. The volcano last erupted around 700 AD.


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