Thursday, June 28, 2012

Update on Geothermal Energy

As the readers of this blog might recall, I previously posted about the potential of geothermal energy production in West Virginia.  Geothermal energy production has become something of a hot topic in West Virginia on the heels of a 2009 study conducted by Southern Methodist University and commissioned by Google, which suggested that West Virginia might be better positioned than any other state in the eastern United States to produce and export geothermal energy.  The study found that there were "hot spots" in several of West Virginia's eastern counties where the Earth's temperature is much hotter than previously thought.  When combined with West Virginia's proximity to densely populated areas where electricity demand is very high and the development of new drilling technologies that could reach the depths necessary for exploitation of geothermal energy, this phenomenon has made the potential development of geothermal power generation in the West Virginia an appealing proposition.

It was amidst the optimism created by the above-referenced developments that West Virginia held its first geothermal energy conference last month in Flatwoods to discuss the benefits and challenges that might accompany geothermal energy production within its borders.  The conference was well attended, and the speakers and attendees alike seemed to be both excited and optimistic about the potential of geothermal energy in West Virginia.  But while there are clearly benefits to exploring the possibility of wide scale commercial production of electric power from geothermal energy in West Virginia, this blogger left the conference with no doubt that there will be significant challenges to developing this resource; that exploration of what it will take to do so is clearly in its infant stages; and that actual commercial production of geothermal energy is likely to be in the distant future, if at all.

The speakers at the geothermal energy conference espoused many benefits to producing electricity from geothermal resources.  First, it is generally recognized that geothermal resources have a smaller environmental impact than fossil fuels.  Although a large amount of water would be necessary to operate an Engineered or Enhanced Geothermal System, which is the type of geothermal system that would be required in West Virginia, such water could be run though a closed-loop system to be injected into and then pumped out of the geothermal reservoir (see illustration below).  Accordingly, the water could be recycled, resulting in less water usage that traditional power plants. 

Additionally, a geothermal power plant requires less land usage than a traditional power plant, resulting in a smaller "footprint." 

Moreover, scientists estimate that currently available geothermal resources could supply the world's energy needs for several thousand years.  And geothermal energy is also more or less renewable.  Once a geothermal reservoir is depleted, it will be naturally recharged after about 3.5 times the depletion time.  Accordingly, the potential that geothermal energy carries to quench our ever-growing thirst for energy is quite vast.

Despite its potential benefits, geothermal energy production is not without its drawbacks.  Geothermal energy production would face some of the same criticisms that natural gas production from the Marcellus Shale now faces, particularly given that the drilling processes for both types of energy production is similar.  There would exist the potential for seismic activity to occur as a result of geothermal energy drilling. Environmentalists would no doubt claim that drinking water sources could be contaminated.  Access roads would have to be built to the well sites, increasing traffic and requiring large-scale earth moving. 

Perhaps the most significant drawbacks to geothermal energy production at this time is that it is not yet competitive in low gradient areas like West Virginia, and the research into such production in West Virginia is in its infancy. It appears that development of the technology to drill to the depths required to access geothermal resources in West Virginia still has some hurdles to clear.  There are also still unknowns regarding the engineering of geothermal power plants.  The actual temperatures of the resource in West Virginia and the performance and flow-rate of geothermal wells here are currently only estimates and largely unknown.  Even depths believed to be the depths to which one would have to drill to reach this resource are only estimates.  Geothermal energy in this region would also be less efficient than traditional power sources.  One expert at the geothermal energy conference estimated that, in light of these risks, it would require a $700 million government investment to merely demonstrate the technology and spur investment from the private sector.  Given the current budgetary woes our federal government is currently facing, such an investment seems unlikely in the near future. 

Although geothermal technology is currently being utilized to heat some homes and government buildings in West Virginia with geothermal heat pumps, it appears that wide scale commercial production of geothermal power will occur in the distant future, if at all.