funded a grant to Southern Methodist University’s Geothermal Laboratory that suggests that the temperature of the Earth beneath the state of West Virginia is significantly higher than previously estimated and capable of supporting commercial baseload geothermal energy production. This is very significant news. A very large thanks to Google for getting money where is does some very basic good.

West Virginia Geothermal Map. Click image for the largest view.

The SMU Geothermal Laboratory has increased its estimate of West Virginia’s geothermal generation potential to 18,890 megawatts (assuming a conservative 2% thermal recovery rate). The new estimate represents a 75 percent increase over estimates in the well used MIT 2006 “The Future of Geothermal Energy” report and exceeds the state’s total current generating capacity, primarily coal based, of 16,350 megawatts.

SMU’s West Virginia discovery is the result of new detailed mapping and interpretation of temperature data derived from oil, gas, and thermal gradient wells — part of an ongoing project to update the Geothermal Map of North America that Blackwell produced with colleague Maria Richards in 2004. Temperatures below the Earth almost always increase with depth, but the rate of increase (the thermal gradient) varies due to factors such as the thermal properties of the rock formations.

Blackwell explains, “By adding 1,455 new thermal data points from oil, gas, and water wells to our geologic model of West Virginia, we’ve discovered significantly more heat than previously thought. The existing oil and gas fields in West Virginia provide a geological guide that could help reduce uncertainties associated with geothermal exploration and also present an opportunity for co-producing geothermal electricity from hot waste fluids generated by existing oil and gas wells.”

The high temperature zones beneath West Virginia revealed by the new mapping are concentrated in the eastern portion of the state. Starting at depths of 4.5 km (greater than 15,000 feet), temperatures reach over 150°C (300°F), which is hot enough for commercial geothermal power production.

Blackwell continues, “The early West Virginia research is very promising but we still need more information about local geological conditions to refine estimates of the magnitude, distribution, and commercial significance of their geothermal resource.”

Zachary Frone, an SMU graduate student researching the area said, “More detailed research on subsurface characteristics like depth, fluids, structure and rock properties will help determine the best methods for harnessing geothermal energy in West Virginia.” The next step in evaluating the resource will be to locate specific target sites for focused investigations to validate the information used to calculate the geothermal energy potential in this study.

Of added significance the team’s work may also shed light on other similar geothermal resources. “We now know that two zones of Appalachian age structures are hot — West Virginia and a large zone covering the intersection of Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana known as the Ouachita Mountain region,” said Blackwell. “Right now we don’t have the data to fill in the area in between,” Blackwell continued, “but it’s possible we could see similar results over an even larger area.”  Lets hope the research finds a large extent of fast rising heat for geothermal production in the Eastern US.

Blackwell thinks the finding opens exciting possibilities for the region saying, “The proximity of West Virginia’s large geothermal resource to east coast population centers has the potential to enhance U.S. energy security, reduce CO2 emissions, and develop high paying clean energy jobs in West Virginia.”

The thanks for the SMU work goes directly back to whose RE<C initiative dedicated to using the power of information and innovation to advance breakthrough technologies in clean energy got the team the cash to do the work.  Those clicks for ads pay off in myriad ways.

The exciting part is in the commercial heat gradient and temperatures.  The technology is in hand for baseload generation in these conditions.  Another large potential geothermal idea is maturing nicely – the binary cycle that can use lower heat levels, down to 165°F.  A more specialized concept already working is co-production where the hot fluids like oil or hot natural gas also use the heat for power generation.

Then there is the Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) used in areas with low natural rock permeability but high temperatures of more than 300°F, which are “enhanced” by injecting fluid and other reservoir engineering techniques. EGS resources are typically deeper than hydrothermal and represent the largest share of total geothermal resources.  EGS is being aggressively researched globally in Germany, Australia, France, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. EGS is being tested in deep sedimentary basins similar to West Virginia’s in Germany and Australia.  EGS is more expensive than simpler systems but the geothermal reach to consumers is far wider.

These methods might find use in West Virginia, as the location of the hot rock is deep.  That and the West Virginia location is free from tectonic or volcanic activity.  These aspects offer the new techniques a grand opportunity.

Blackwell and his team at SMU’s Geothermal Laboratory will present a detailed report on the discovery at the 2010 Geothermal Resources Council annual meeting in Sacramento, Oct. 24-27. A summary of the report is available online here.

Great news for geothermal, the national economy and over time for ratepayers in the eastern US!  Thanks to Google.


7 Comments so far

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