Injecting water at a very high pressure into the cracks of a dormant volcano in order to exploit an untapped source of clean energy? Does that sound like a good idea?
That’s exactly what’s going to happen at the Newberry Volcano in eastern Oregon. AltaRock Energy, a Seattle-based company, says it has secured permission from the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to start pumping water into a series of connected cracks about 2 miles below the surface.
Well, the BLM has been involved in some questionable decisions in the past.
The idea of the $44 million project is to break up the rock surrounding the volcano by cracking it apart with high pressure water and the many other substances that go into fracking to make the geothermal heat contained in those rocks easier to access.
But wait, hasn’t fracking been linked with earthquakes in Oklahoma and Ohio recently? And now the BLM has approved fracking a volcano? I’m no scientist, but this sounds like a bad idea.
Yet, according to New Scientist, the BLM gave its permission for the project’s testing phase only after independent studies showed it did not risk triggering earthquakes near the volcano or contaminating groundwater.
Evaluating all possibilities for renewable energy is important, particularly those that are large and well- distributed nationally. Geothermal energy, produced from both conventional hydrothermal and Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS), is certainly one of those options.
What is EGS? Basically we’re talking about hot rocks: the unlimited resource that is the heat beneath the earth’s surface. EGS fractures this hot rock, circulates water through the system, and uses the resulting steam to produce heat and electricity in a conventional turbine. The cycle begins again when the water is injected back into the rock.
In traditional geothermal energy, by contrast, power is produced by drilling into pockets of hot water and steam. The amount of power that can be produced using this system is limited and is dependent on the temperature and size of these pockets.
The potential for EGS is enormous: experts have estimated that 2 percent of the heat below the continental United States could provide 2,500 times the country’s total annual energy use. That’s great, but extracting that heat is another story. However, EGS projects are already up and running in France, Germany, and Australia, and in 2008, the first US demonstration project for EGS was launched in Desert Peak, Nevada.
AltaRock chose to perform its EGS tests beneath the flanks of the Newberry volcano to take advantage of the fact that rocks get hotter with depth at a much faster rate than in non-volcanic areas.
The testing phase should be complete by 2014. If the results are as good as AltaRock hopes, the system could rival the cost-efficiency of fossil fuels, says Susan Petty, the firm’s CEO.
A study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2007 suggested that EGS resources could supply 10 per cent of the US’s energy needs, mainly because it can be located anywhere where there is hot rock within two miles of the surface.
Geothermal energy sounds like a great idea to help solve our energy challenges and fight global warming, but maybe not fracking a volcano.
What do you think?
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Photo Credit: DonCrain