Slow walking geothermal energy

Denis Pombriant

If we admitted that there was an energy emergency instead of a climate emergency, you could reasonably expect that the DoE and other government entities would be all over it like a junkyard dog. There would be a Manhattan Project. Instead government and industry are content to burn through the fossil fuels and play chicken with climate.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

Once, when he was running for president in 2012, former Texas governor and current Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry, said that he’d abolish the Department of Energy. Things happen, Perry never distinguished himself as a presidential contender, and Donald Trump did. Perry got a consolation prize of sorts in being named Secretary of Energy though he got more than he bargained for.

According to a January 2017 story in the New York Times Perry figured he’d be the cheerleader for the US energy industry–the fossil fuel industry–which, having been Texas Governor, he thought he was well qualified for.

But according to a contemporary story in Vanity Fair a couple days later whose headline says it all: “Energy Secretary Nominee Rick Perry Reportedly Didn’t Realize He’d be in Charge of America’s Nukes,” Perry had little understanding that nearly two thirds of his $30 billion budget was spent on maintaining America’s arsenal of the world’s deadliest weapons. He had no idea what the Department of Energy did.

Fast forward to June 2019 and utilitydrive.com has another interesting story about Perry and energy. “DOE: Geothermal generation could reach 60 GW by 2050, with tech improvements” reports on a new study by our Department of Energy that almost breathlessly documents that with technology improvements and cutting red tape, by 2050 the US could be producing as much as 60 GW of geothermal electric power. That’s a tiny fraction of the 1.1 terawatts of electricity we use today.

Be still my heart.

What came before

Perhaps unfortunately for Perry and his department, in 2006 an interdisciplinary panel of scientists and engineers convened at MIT (yes, that MIT) produced another report paid for by the DoE titled, “The Future of Geothermal Energy.” In it the researchers posed a hypothesis, could Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) be used to replace up to 10 percent of the nation’s electric generating capacity or 100 GW, which was then a whopping 1.0 terawatt. To provide some scope, 100 GW is equivalent to between 50 and 100 of the biggest power plants in operation today. The resounding answer was yes, it could. In fact, the team found that under the Rocky Mountains there are heat resources enough to support all of America’s energy needs (not just electricity but replacing all fossil fuels) by a factor of one thousand times.

The hottest places capable of producing geothermal eneergy are in the Intermountain West.

The MIT team thought all this could be done rather quickly since the basic engineering, like adapting directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing developed in the oil industry, could easily serve the need to drill for heat. And permitting? If there was a real energy emergency (and there is, everywhere but in the oil industry) you might expect the permitting process to proceed at a rate that’s faster than cutting red tape over 30 years.

Enhanced geothermal, the basics

Here’s a primer on geothermal energy, just in case.

Drill a hole in the ground and send hydraulic fracturing fluid and a little equipment down about 2 miles or roughly the depth of a natural gas well. Don’t worry about finding gas, it comes from sedimentary rock formations and the Rocky Mountains are made of granite.

Fracture the rock so that you form a porous pocket of gravel way down there. Then pump ordinary water into the hole. The temperature at that depth is in the range of 300 degrees centigrade, three times the boiling point. But at the pressure of that depth, the water remains water. It doesn’t turn to steam.

Now drill another hole into that pocket of gravel, pump hot water out and send it through some rectifying equipment and into a conventional steam turbine attached to an electric generator. When the hot water reaches the surface and goes into the dynamo it rapidly depressurizes and expands to turn into super-hot steam that turns the dynamo and makes power.

It’s a pretty simple process and it effectively uses the Earth as if it were a coal furnace or a nuclear reactor. The nuclear material in the EGS case is 4,000 miles away in the liquid center of the Earth. Don’t worry about radioactivity, Earth has that aspect covered.

The well you drilled is good for about 30 years which means at the end of that period you’ll need to pull up stakes and move the power plant. In the interim you get 30 years of electricity with virtually no cost for fuel. You could also mothball the power plant for 10 years while the well recovers its mojo. Worse things have befallen humanity.

This isn’t Buck Rogers (look him up) sci-fi, geothermal energy production is already in use around the world. Calpine, a publicly traded utility has 13 geothermal generating stations in Sonoma Valley, CA (a.k.a. the Geysers). Together they generate about 750 MW of power, enough to light up all of San Francisco though they sell their power more regionally. We could do a lot more things like that and we don’t have to wait until 2050.

Mr. Perry’s DoE

You can download a copy of the new DoE report, the one that says we could generate 60 GW from geothermal sources by mid-century here but why? Thirty years is an insanely long time given what’s at risk for the climate and the planet in getting away from fossil fuels. The question is why does the DoE now think that geothermal is so far in the future and why on earth would we not want to put the pedal to the metal to develop this promising energy resource?

There are geothermal projects happening all over the world. Iceland has about 30 volcanoes and gets a lot of power from geothermal so does Hawaii, so do places all over Europe. If there’s a mountain range like the Rockies, Himalayas, Andes, Alps, Urals, Atlas, or a chain of volcanoes like the Pacific Ring of Fire, or even the Tibetan plateau, there’s very likely a heat gradient that could choke a horse beneath it. All of those places should be prospected to quantify the heat resources beneath them and to determine their potential as sources for geothermal power generation.

My take

There really is an energy emergency because we’re running out of fossil fuels and the pollution is toxic to the planet. But in the oil business, the effort is to maximize the amount of oil that can be extracted and burned and thus the investment in the status quo. The same DoE reports that there is a 50-year supply of oil left in the ground, a dubious notion because it assumes that we can get every last drop. Also, about 30 percent of the petroleum we pump goes to making things like synthetic rubber, pharmaceuticals, paint, glass–a lot. If we burn through all of the petroleum that we have left we won’t have it to make things like car tires or the waist band of your tighty-whities.

Nevertheless, it doesn’t appear that the DoE, our DoE, is too concerned because it has a pretty good idea of the next energy paradigm. If we admitted that there was an energy emergency instead of a climate emergency, you could reasonably expect that the DoE and other government entities would be all over it like a junkyard dog. There would be a Manhattan Project. Instead government and industry are content to burn through the fossil fuels and play chicken with climate. In a more logical world, the ex-Governor of Texas would become the ex-Secretary of Energy pronto. At least he’s not messing with the nukes.

Denis Pombriant

Written by

Researcher, author of multiple books including “The Age of Sustainability” about solutions for climate change. Technology, business, economics.

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