At a site like this what is missing can be very disconcerting.  Missing in total positive content are big geothermal projects. It’s not all bad news. But for one post lets have a look at the problems.

The current mainstream technology catch all term is Enhanced Geothermal Systems or EGS. Much of what geothermal is running now isn’t ‘enhanced’ so mush as standard technology.  Factually, the locations where non-enhanced projects easily can work are pretty much covered and slowly developing.  The action could would and should be in the areas where EGS technology is going to need be applied.

The past year or so has been a kind of reality check period for the business.  Make no mistake; geothermal energy still leads any other system for sustainable base load power production without any storage requirements.  Geology is a wonderful thing when it’s the storage media.

Much of the trepidation is based on the potential of earthquakes occurring in geothermal areas coming from the tremors that occurred during the Geox project in Landau, Germany. It’s not the first or last time that rumblings and geothermal projects have happened in the same neighborhood. Most areas where hot rocks occur relatively near the surface also tend to be areas prone to earthquakes. The EGS process of fracturing rock layers via hydraulic pressure, necessary to inject and heat the water before pumping it back up, can also trigger seismic shifts in underground rocks.

Admittedly the trepidation is leaning to hysteria.  A fracture effort might loosen up a localized area less than a football field in a system of continental plates.  The pressures applied are minor compared to the pressures between colliding plates.  But the activity offers stresses – a wee bit more stress that might just cut loose some “compressed spring type energy” that would in all likelihood come loose at some point in time anyway.  Some geophysicist will come up with the courage to point out that geothermal may well have a protective or preservative effect in certain situations.

The Alps, where the German effort and the ended Swiss effort at Basel are located the Africa plate is sliding under Europe.  The Alps are going up and there’s going to be some shaking.  At least geothermal efforts are more predictable for now, shaking induced or not. In December of ’09 the Swiss government permanently shut down the geothermal project near Basel that was suspended in 2006 following a series of minor earthquakes.  Fear rules, justified or not.

The very next day, AltaRock Energy announced to the U.S. Department of Energy it was abandoning its project at The Geysers in Northern California.  The project was an attempt to expand an existing conventional geothermal project using EGS.  The AltaRock Geysers project was supposed to be the flagship of the Obama administration’s push for clean energy, enjoying the backing in millions of not only federal taxpayer dollars but also included and other private investors.

There seems to be more to it than the Swiss move the day before.  AltaRock only got to 4,400 feet of the planned 12,000 when they struck a rock called serpentinized peridotite that allowed the hole to collapse.  Drilling through “hard rock” is different than what most oil and gas drilling is – working through ‘soft rock”.   Try a whack at a bit of granite and then a bit of sandstone – using gloves and goggles – to get the point.  The petroleum folks can tell you, as they drill through both, that drilling through those hard rock layers is something best avoided when most all your equipment is soft rock engineered.

In Australia Geodymanics, the one world success at proving the EGS concept is in a major delay at its Cooper Basin project in South Australia. The company’s goal of a 50-megawatt plant by 2012 was recently set back some two years due to the corrosion and failure of the project’s well casing pipe.  This demonstrates that the metallurgy needed of well casing pipe set into hard rock and with water the moving fluid is going to be very different from moving petroleum even when the petroleum has very salty water coming along.

Perhaps the longest running effort is in Canada, the Meager Mountain geothermal project north of Vancouver is setting a record for longevity in development. The area was first recognized as a good geothermal site in the mid-1970s, with both test and deep holes being drilled for the next 30 years. Today Ram Power continues to pursue the project, but it appears the effort is in stasis.

Even if success and power generation could get underway the power has to be transmitted. MidAmerican Energy abandoned its Salton Sea project in California mainly due to lack of transmission line resources, therefore no access to markets.

By no means is it all bad news.  Binary systems on the small scale seem to be quietly growing along at a happy pace.  Not so deep and not so hot and usually lacking in the caustic, or corrosive chemistry these projects generate the most progress.  This size of development isn’t making much news.  But one of these days someone will add up all that’s been installed and get us some statistics worth writing about. It might be bigger numbers than we might expect.

EGS still has lots to offer.  The technical challenges in deep hot regions with difficult and unusual chemistries where the circulation water brings heat and problems will get solved.  Innovation will get the holes drilled and get past those difficult regions.

The issues have to do with the politics and the fairness of the treatment of the people living and working near to a developing and working project.  Yup, the ground might shake during development, it probably would shake someday anyway and might shake just because the hot rocks will gradually cool.  Geothermal isn’t without some risk, even so small as the risk is and as predictable thus manageable.

The major concern is the political and media arena.  Problems get way over magnified, solution get picked to death, progress slows to an intermittent crawl if moving at all.  EGS offers “BIG” a perspective that government and media types feed on.  Small just isn’t of much interest.  That might be a very good thing.

It’s a sure good thing Big is big.  The expense to solve the technical challenges and cope with government vacillation and media emotionalizing are going to cost big money.  It’s a good thing that government is in on the funding, after all – its one way to subsidize the major media and thrill the general populace.


4 Comments so far

  1. Jim Takchess on April 9, 2010 3:43 AM

    A nice overview .Causality is a hard thing to determine. I hear at times there are tremors with oil drilling but you don’t hear much on this. Hopefully we will get by some of these technical issues as the potential is large.

    This site seems to be a nice news source in this area.

  2. Lucas on April 9, 2010 8:49 PM

    It’s not that hard to find the sites on the lawsuits and documentation of earthquake frequency at the Geysers. That being said, just build the darn sites 50-100 mi from any population, or at least well away from wine country.

  3. Dirk on April 15, 2010 3:37 AM

    Just back from Iceland where there are 7 plants up and runnung. Nobody cares about seismic issues there because they are frequently occuring anyway. Building these plants very far from the cities often makes no sense because you cannot transport the heat over 100miles or so. Warm water use is certainly recommendable since you don’t want to waste the earth’s gift that you get when drilling some kilometers down.

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