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Geothermal the next big alt-energy? One company thinks so

Map of the Newberry Volano east of the Cascades in Oregon Credit: U.S. Geological Survey/Wikipedia

The Seattle-based company AltaRock Energy, along with Oregon company Davenport Newberry, is embarking on a project that is a longstanding dream of sci-fi nerds everywhere: creating energy by harnessing the heat found deep within the Earth.

This will be done through a new process called Enhanced Geothermal Systems, which AltaRock founder and president Susan Petty believes will yield more energy and prove more economic than previous methods of attaining geothermal power.

The potential is rich on the West Coast, where, as part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a great deal of geothermal activity can be found within the Cascades. But first Petty and Davenport Newberry will have to overcome public concerns and fears over possibly structure-damaging micro-earthquakes, which a similar project in Switzerland caused in the recent past. That's the goal of AltaRock's project, which is a simulation of the EGS process, and will not actually have a power plant to produce energy with.

The go ahead for the demonstration was given by the Bureau of Land Management, which issued a Finding of No Significant Impact at the beginning of April.

In preparation for the event, Tacoma Pump & Drill, a small drilling company from Graham, will soon be drilling holes for seismological monitors to attain background data in the Newberry Volcano in central Oregon south of Bend. The volcano is not the protruding Mount Rainier fare, but is rather more akin to Yellowstone: shallow and wide, 20 miles in diameter, with magma bubbling not far beneath the surface. 

The EGS simulation, expected to begin in late July or early August, will start by pumping 24 million gallons of water at 800 gallons per minute deep into the volcano. In a process called hydro-shearing, the water will come into contact with hot bedrock, creating cracks in the earth and forming deposits, thus allowing more water to collect and heat up at once. Once boiled to perfection, the water will then shoot back up as steam to the surface through two more holes drilled on either side of the deposits, where the water’s heat energy and pressure will be used to power turbines and produce electricity.

A video posted on YouTube by AltaRock provides a visual representation of what this process will look like.

Hydro-shearing is not the same as the strangely similar sounding but much more notorious hydraulic fracturing, or hydro-fracking, which has garnered much media attention and criticism lately. Hydro-fracking shatters the rock, while hydro-shearing only slightly widens natural cracks by fractions of an inch. Additionally, the diesel and toxic chemicals used in the process of hydro-fracking can effectively poison ground water and possibly pollute the air. Hydro-shearing, on the other hand, uses mostly cold water to form the cracks, with some help from non-toxic, biodegradable diverters and tracers, which according to a study will have no significant environmental impact.

The greatest concern, and the greatest obstacle to progress, are earthquakes. Referred to as “micro seismic events” by AltaRock, the process could create miniature earthquakes that often gauge below 1 on the seismic scale, but could scale in as high as 3.5 or 4, according to a report prepared by URS Corporation, Seismic Hazards Group. It is believed to be unlikely that these events will be felt by people, but they will be picked up by sensitive earthquake equipment.

In Brasen, Switzerland, a similar project caused up to $9 million in earthquake damage to homes and other structures, though no bodily harm occurred, according to a story, "Deep in Bedrock, Clean Energy and Quake Fears," by New York Times reporter James Glanz. A government study concluded that the project would cost millions of dollars of damage each year were it to continue. Which it did not.

Earthquake concerns over the Switzerland project arose when AltaRock Energy first tried to start a project in California, which ultimately failed as a result of drilling problems.

Petty maintains that there will be very little risk with volcanoes this time around. With the remote location of Newberry volcano, the induced seismic activity should have less tramatic effect than it did in Switzerland, if any. The only places that might to be affected are the small community of La Pine, nine miles away, and, more likely, the Newberry National Volcanic Monument visitor center, just a couple of miles away from the demonstration site.

Backed with seismological reports done by outside groups, Petty is convinced that the project will be safe.

One more problem is cost. Washington State Geologist Dave Norman said that the drilling involved would cause a high frontend cost, which could prove to be unattractive to potential funders. It's one reason why, while wind and solar energy have been quicker to take off, geothermal is on a slow slog.

“On the other hand," he said. "Once you get it established, it lasts a long, long time.”

Proponents of geothermal energy say there would be a very low cost to continue operation, meaning it would pay for itself in due time. Furthermore, geothermal is consistent and can be used no matter the weather or the time of year.

"Solar power and wind power are highly intermittent," AltaRock's Petty said. "They tie up a lot of grid capacity and don’t use it all the time."

In its current stage, Norman said that geothermal energy would not be replacing other forms of energy anytime soon, but was still important to consider. 

"It’s an important component of an energy portfolio," he said. "At this point (while) it couldn’t replace hydrocarbons, it does give us more alternatives. It’s certainly worth developing."

Should AltaRock Energy succeed in proving the safety of the project, Petty said that most likely her company will apply for permits to build a power plant. She said that, hopefully, they would be able to expand quickly within the next few years, and they could produce up to 250 megawatts of energy in the Newberry area — which could theoretically power 250,000 residential homes, but could go to industrial use as well.

Petty envisions a Utopian-esque future where geothermal energy will be prevalent all over the nation, and not just in mountainous, volcanic regions. What that would look like or when that would happen is still a long way away, but Petty's process, should it prove safe, may be a step in that direction.

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