The Power War: Geothermal vs. Nuclear

Adam schultzIt turns out volcanoes are good for more than sci-fi movies and fueling doomsday preppers. The Newberry Volcano, located 20 miles south of Bend, is one of five sites that have been awarded $2 million by the Department of Energy to conduct research on the production of geothermal energy. Yes, there are some that see the process being used as fracking, but more on that in a minute.

The end goal will be selecting one of the sites as a national Frontier Observatory for Research on Geothermal Energy (FORGE) laboratory. Once established, companies, businesses, researchers, and scientists will be able to utilize the lab to test technology and equipment, with the eventual goal of geothermal energy production.

The Newberry project is being spearheaded by a collaborative partnership between Oregon State University, the Seattle-based company AltaRock, and the Pacific Northwest National Lab out of Washington State. Phase One, which is more or less a desktop phase where design, engineering, and scientific plans are scrutinized, will start Aug. 1. It is up to the team to demonstrate that a site on the flank of the volcano, outside of the National Volcanic Monument and near a geothermal research site already extensively studied by OSU and AltaRock Energy, has the potential to be the home of the FORGE lab in order to receive funding for Phase Two, where three finalist candidate sites will be selected, after which significant funding will be released for detailed scientific investigation of those sites, leading to the Phase Three final selection of the FORGE lab location.

Newberry Volcano is a prime location for several reasons, the most significant being the highly concentrated heat source provided by a chamber of magma located beneath the volcano. Also, if the technology demonstrated at Newberry based on extracting heat from an otherwise dry geothermal system was ever developed into commercial power generation at other locations near Newberry or elsewhere in the Cascade volcanic range, these would be close to the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), and have power tie-ins to the energy grid that are already well-developed. Technology companies such as Internet search businesses, social networks, and cloud services that have been settling in Oregon consume large amounts of energy and are seen as natural customers for green energy. Of course, there are the ever-growing areas of population that would also benefit from a clean energy source.

AltaRock has been operating at the site since 2012, and is working to perfect an enhanced geothermal engineering system. Although Newberry has an incredible heat source, it lacks the naturally occurring deep underground water source and permeable rock that would make harnessing geothermal energy ideal. To compensate for this, AltaRock is engineering a hydrothermal system using hydroshearing, the injection of shallow groundwater into deeper very hot rock formations, at modest pressure, to open up a network of small cracks that are meant to allow for the transfer of heat away from the rock and into the circulating water. This method is intended to create an artificial closed loop “wet system” where a water source would be provided, circulated and heated, turned to steam, then cooled and condensed to be reused.

Traditional geothermal energy comes from naturally occurring steam. At Newberry there is underground heat but not steam, so the plan is to create a geothermal source by cycling water down an injection well and bringing steam and hot water up a production well.

“If you’re really going to make a big impact on the US energy budget, you’re going to need to expand geothermal energy production outside of those areas to areas where there’s a lot of hot rock, but not a lot of natural hydrothermal systems,” said Adam Schultz, professor of geophysics at Oregon State University and principal investigator for OSU’s part of the FORGE partnership.

OSU is playing a large role in Phase One, both in geological physical model development as well as outreach and engagement with the public. Collaboration with the Cascades campus to possibly establish a facility affiliated with the campus in Bend is also underway, an important development when and if drilling begins. Valuable scientific rock material and fluids will need to be handled skillfully and processed quickly, and a facility close by would be essential in handling this important task. There is also a real prospect for developing a significant green geothermal industry in Oregon, and for providing training to students who would be needed for the jobs that industry would generate.

Of course, there were several hurdles to be cleared before any work was able to begin. As to be expected with anything involving sticking instruments into the ground, every single action required a special use permit, and getting permits to do any project ends up being a significant effort. Not to mention the very careful sophistication with which one must present injecting water into the ground, in order to satisfy regulatory requirements. Although there are some correlations with hydroshearing and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking—namely water being injected into the ground under some pressure—they are not the same. The process of hydroshearing involves injecting water into the ground through wells, and it’s injected at much lower pressures than is done, for example, in the oil industry where high-pressure hydraulic fracturing of so-called tight shale formations is used to free up oil and gas formations, and where chemicals and mechanical “proppants” such as sand or ceramic particles are used to keep cracks in those formations open. At Newberry, lower pressure hydroshearing opens up existing cracks in the rock formations, and no proppants are used.

During the research carried out at the Newberry Volcano, a very elaborate control process was in place, and work was monitored carefully by seismographs and other sensors installed throughout the site.

“You always have to be aware doing geotechnical work, regardless of where you are, you’re changing the pressure, so you have to monitor that, and modify the pressure or even shut it down if you need to as conditions change,” Schultz said. AltaRock has gone through two cycles of hydroshearing at Newberry, first in 2012 and again in 2014. The hydroshearing process was shown to work, and its control system passed with flying colors in terms of environmental impact. The research team is working toward a green energy future, and environmental awareness is a top priority.

The biggest obstacle, unsurprisingly, is green and made of paper. Although funding has been granted for Phase One, there is no guarantee it will be provided for the remaining two phases of the project, regardless of where the site is ultimately located. Alternative energy is big now, but in two years, with elections and possible changes in Congress, it may not be.

For instance, for the first time in history, Congress is specifying the amount of money each individual directorate of the National Science Foundation is allotted. Political influence within the NSF is an alarming notion if you’re a scientist, more so when considering the fact that federal research and development funding has decreased dramatically, and continues to do so. While FORGE is funded by the Department of Energy rather than NSF, all federal agencies are subject to similar political realities.

However, the potential benefits of successful development are undeniably promising. “If you could develop a Cascade-style volcanic system, you’re looking at something that would be a real good competitor with a nuclear reactor on the scale of power output,” stated Schultz. “Successful development would lay a foundation for a new industry that doesn’t exist right now, which is large-scale enhanced geothermal energy. So if you make it exist, just thinking about the Northwest, because we happen to have the highest geothermal potential, you have a chain of volcanoes stretching from Southern British Columbia to Northern California, with a lot of potential that could be tapped into, using closed loop systems.”

 Of course, the DOE is very interested in the continued research in geothermal energy production. “Enhanced geothermal systems could represent the next frontier of renewable energy and hold the potential to diversify the nation’s energy portfolio while reducing greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere,” said undersecretary for science and energy Lynn Orr in a recent Department of Energy press release.

By Kirsten Allen