The MIT report that discusses and maps the U.S. geothermal potential (a large pdf file) may be a seminal work that still needs attention. The problem might be the scenario, pumping water down multiple wells to deep hot rocks and bringing it back heated for conversion to power. Most people expect that the water coming back will be like the geysers seen at Yellowstone, rife with chemicals and hard to handle.

MITs Professor Jefferson Tetser

MITs Professor Jefferson Tetser

Iceland has made great progress in geothermal exploitation. In a country that has a very cold climate and lots of close to the surface geothermal heat, the only barriers have been choosing to spend capital for geothermal or spend cash for fuels. Capital for renewables is winning. The energy is free, the capital costs and the on running maintenance expenses are getting lower and cheaper. Experience is a great reducer of costs.

Iceland Geothermal Facility

Iceland Geothermal Facility

Meanwhile New Zealand has also invested in geothermal heat recovery more in the co-generation method where the fluid circulates down into the heat source and back exchanging heat at the surface so avoiding the dissolved minerals and other chemicals getting released or into the generation equipment., of the famed search engine and advertising distributor is investing in geothermal. Pointed to “enhanced geothermal systems” Google takes the lead in what is from their point of view historically under funded and widely available resource by planning to accelerate development and adoption. While not explicitly saying so Google seems to grasp the idea that the getting the heat up here is the key rather than push a particular technology. Google’s own page, while not describing enhanced geothermal systems offers, “EGS has the potential to provide baseload power cheaper than coal, could conceivably be deployed almost anywhere, and is essentially limitless in supply. Most importantly, EGS has a relatively small footprint and virtually no greenhouse gas emissions. EGS development has been limited mostly by the lack of research interest and commercialization funding – not technology.”

The three beneficiaries of Google’s venture are AltaRock Energy, which will receive $6.25 million; Potter Drilling, slated to get $4 million; and the Geothermal Laboratory at Southern Methodist University, which is engaged in mapping geothermal potential in North America will receive about $490,000.

Altarock EGS Graphic

Altarock EGS Graphic

So what is this EGS thing Google is talking about? Several deep well bores into a hot strata where the rock would be fractured, water circulated down, through and back up, heat extracted and cycled again. Much the same as the Kiwis have been doing on a small scale.

This is all great. But its still small money, $10 million is but a pittance of the investment that would be needed to make a big difference. It’s a start where government and private investment has been lacking.

But a reality check offers up some gaps that other efforts have turned up. Some of the most promising renewable projects “stack” processes so getting to the desired end product. Innovation, “clean sheets of paper” and other thinking need applied.

Geothermal is about heat. Latent heat there for the taking. The answer may not be the trap of simply getting water down and back to make turbines spin, but to get the best, most reliable and lowest cost thing circulating. That might be air or compressed air from a wind turbine. Circulation doesn’t by definition require water. The point is to get the most heat to work with at the lowest cost. That’s where my money would go first, be able to move on a set of wells with the needed circulating material be it a gas or fluid.

The geothermal as in ground source systems applicable for home sized systems are desperately needed and addressed to the average existing homeowner. The single-family dwellings worldwide in particular need geothermal retrofits at low cost. That is what I need, and most of you do too. Home geothermal wouldn’t be about getting “heat” – it would be getting a source of coolness (a heatsink) to exchange into during air-conditioning season or a warmer than ambient atmospheric air source to pull heat from in the heating season.

Millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of dwellings could use a retrofit for ground source geothermal sources. But unlike new construction, the house next door, the street, the utilities are already in place offering seemingly prohibitive barriers to an install. But there isn’t any reason many or most homes can’t be offered a geothermal ground source by shallow directional boring of several tunnels filled with heat exchange tubing and an exchanging medium. As a practical matter, the bores could be near vertical allowing a great deal of subsoil latent heat to be used. It won’t work everywhere, rock or other subsoil condition may make a location impractical, but it’s a sorely overlooked market.

The geothermal reality is going to get a boost from Google. The money for Southern Methodist is to update their geothermal resource maps. Potter Drilling obviously will use the funds for drilling research and Altarock hasn’t said exactly what the Google money will be used for but has closed $26.25 million of private placement investment for developing engineered geothermal technology and projects.

Reality isn’t including much attention from the U.S. government, probably because the constituency of special interests is still too small for effective influence. So the research dollars aren’t there. Ground source heat or heatsink depending on the season for existing buildings doesn’t seem to get attention even as it’s the largest market of all. That’s the one I’m most interested in. Saving on home and business heating and cooling plus hot water are big conservation areas. Innovation here could make a big difference.

Geothermal relies on a red hot glowing ball a few meters to a several thousand meters down in most places on the continents. The continents are “light” rock floating on the heavier hot magma, a massive resource that in most cases should be a nearly endless source of heat energy. The primary know how is in hand, it’s the good sense and using it that isn’t.


13 Comments so far

  1. Al Fin on September 2, 2008 9:05 AM

    Very nice point, Brian, about underground heat sinks and heat exchangers for millions of homes. Apartment complexes and condominiums could offer renters and buyers significant energy savings with minimal maintenance–once up-front costs are amortized.

    Same with housing developers and even custom home builders. Real estate agencies need to get tuned into this aspect of property value.

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  12. carly on April 17, 2019 7:19 AM

    Hi Brian

    There is a broken link in this article under the anchor text “the MIT report that discusses and maps the u.s. geothermal potential”

    Here’s the correct working link so you can replace it –

    Carly 🙂

  13. Brian Westenhaus on April 17, 2019 8:15 AM

    Fixed, Thank you Carly!!

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