West Virginia’s first geothermal energy conference will be held tomorrow in Flatwoods, West Virginia. The conference is sponsored by Marshall University’s Center for Business and Economic Research and Center for Environmental, Geotechnical and Applied Sciences, the West Virginia Division of Energy, and the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey. The aim of the conference is to explore the potential of geothermal energy as a sustainable source of energy, the geologic characteristics of geothermal energy, the economics of commercial electricity production from geothermal energy, the practical considerations of drilling for geothermal energy, and the engineering concepts involved in harnessing geothermal energy for commercial use.
As the name implies, geothermal energy is energy stored within the earth. The energy is generated primarily by radioactive decay at Earth’s core, which is then conducted to surrounding cooler rocks. Some of the rocks melt, creating magma convection, which in turn heats rock and water in Earth’s crust. This phenomenon is responsible for creating hot springs and geysers. When harnessed, it can also be used to produce heat and energy for commercial use, including electrical power generation.
Geothermal energy is currently being utilized in the United States for commercial power generation, but most of this activity is taking place near tectonic plate boundaries where hotter temperatures can be found closer to the earth’s surface. Geothermal energy is also being utilized for residential heating with geothermal heat pumps that can utilize cooler temperatures closer to the surface to provide adequate residential heating. One West Virginia company, Comfor Tech, which happens to be making a presentation at the geothermal energy conference, sells and installs geothermal heat pumps.
While it might be easier to produce geothermal energy near tectonic plate boundaries and from hot springs, energy can also be produced by drilling down into hot aquifers located deep within the Earth. Like natural gas production, geothermal energy production can be enhanced by hydraulic fracturing. The rock is fractured and then water is injected into the fractures to flow through the rock to be heated. Of course, geothermal wells would have to be drilled to depths much greater than oil and gas wells.
A study commissioned a few years ago by Google’s non-profit arm and conducted by Southern Methodist University suggested West Virginia may be better suited than any other state in the eastern third of the country to exploit geothermal energy. Researchers found that areas below Tucker, Randolph, Pocahontas, and Greenbrier counties are particularly suited for geothermal energy production due to elevated temperatures under the Earth’s surface. The following map from the SMU study is reproduced to illustrate the temperatures of West Virginia’s subsurface at various depths.
Geothermal energy has several attributes that could make it a critical piece to solving America’s energy puzzle by providing a sustainable energy source that is more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels. While the production of geothermal energy does release greenhouse gases that are trapped within the earth, such emissions are said to be much lower than those emitted when burning fossil fuels. Geothermal energy is also considered a sustainable energy source that could supply the world’s energy needs for thousands of years.
Geothermal energy also carries with it several potential drawbacks that could reduce its viability as a source of commercial energy. Chief among those drawbacks is cost. Geothermal energy would cost more to produce than fossil fuels, principally because of the large capital investment required to build a geothermal power plant. Some believe that geothermal energy may only be viable if subsidized by the government.
Geothermal energy production would also not be without legal and environmental concerns. First, there will no doubt be an issue regarding ownership of the right to extract the geothermal energy stored deep below the Earth’s surface. Does the owner of the surface rights own the geothermal energy rights due to the fact that such rights have not been carved out of his deed? Is there an argument that the owner of other subsurface rights owns them? If so, then are such rights owned by the owner of the oil and gas rights or the owner of the coal or other mineral rights? Similar ownership issues were faced in the not-so-distant past when coal-bed methane was first produced in West Virginia. The property ownership issues arising from geothermal energy production would likely be worked out in the courts.
Because drilling for geothermal energy in West Virginia would likely utilize similar technologies to drilling for natural gas, including hydraulic fracturing, it would likely also face similar environmental criticisms and legal challenges. Geothermal energy production could release noxious gases and chemicals. It could also potentially produce seismic activity similar to earthquakes. Water usage for hydraulic fracturing would likely be raised as a concern. Many of the same issues concerning damage to local transportation and other infrastructure currently existing with oil and gas production would also exist with geothermal energy production. Additionally, subsidence has been experienced in conjunction with geothermal energy production in other countries. Although these risks seem to be considered manageable, these issues will no doubt spawn an abundance of litigation and legal wrangling in today’s litigious society.
I will be attending tomorrow’s conference and hope to provide an update post by week’s end.