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Research unveils extensive U.S. geothermal resources

By

October 27, 2011

Snap of Google Earth U.S. geothermal resource map based on SMU research

Snap of Google Earth U.S. geothermal resource map based on SMU research

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As a green energy source, geothermal heat is tough to beat, but until recently, it was believed to be economically feasible only in areas with shallow tectonic (volcanic) activity. Now, with a generous grant from Google.org, the search engine giant's philanthropic arm, two scientists from Southern Methodist University (SMU) have pooled together the results from more than 35,000 data sites to paint a very different, almost rosy, energy picture for the United States and, indeed, the world.

For over one hundred years, traditional geothermal plants have exploited natural steam reservoirs fairly close to the surface of the earth's crust. The superheated steam is captured by wells which channel it to drive turbines in adjacent power plants. Calpine Corporation's Geysers Field, situated north of San Francisco in the craggy Mayacamas Mountains, is the world's largest earth-powered electrical generation complex and provides a good example of this green technology at work.

Currently, more than 2700 MWh of electricity are generated geothermally in the U.S. each year- roughly equivalent to 60 million barrels of oil - and sufficient to power 3.5 million homes, all while eliminating 22 million tons of carbon dioxide, 200,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, 80,000 tons of nitrogen oxide and 110,000 tons of particulate matter. Clean, indeed.

SMU Geothermal Lab Coordinator Maria Richards and Geophysics professor David Blackwell's research has revealed, however, that a much larger portion of the earth's crust can yield usable energy than was previously thought, especially in the eastern U.S. The project's findings indicate that, with advanced technology already available, the continental U.S. harbors a staggering 2,980,000 MW of potential energy! That's especially impressive considering the current global geothermal generating capacity is only 9,000MW.

The SMU team's research meshes nicely with new technology coming online, collectively dubbed Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS), that promises to expand the yield of geothermal energy by several orders of magnitude. Whereas traditional plants exploit naturally existing steam, the EGS technique involves injecting water into wells drilled deep into hot rock. The resultant steam is then captured to drive turbines and generators, similar to those powered by natural steam.

To date, Google.org has made over US$10 million in grants to foster EGS development. Other plants will use a lower temperature approach, such as this facility we covered a few years back, which can generate power with much less heat.

"This assessment of geothermal potential will only improve with time," said Blackwell. "Our study assumes that we tap only a small fraction of the available stored heat in the Earth's crust, and our capabilities to capture that heat are expected to grow substantially as we improve upon the energy conversion and exploitation factors through technological advances and improved techniques."

We now know that potentially exploitable EGS resources can be found in all 50 U.S. states and countless regions around the globe as well, so it's only a matter of time before abundant clean energy begins to flow from tapping into that massive molten furnace churning below our feet.

"Both Google and the SMU researchers are fundamentally changing the way we look at how we can use the heat of the Earth to meet our energy needs, and by doing so are making significant contributions to enhancing our national security and environmental quality," said Karl Gawell, executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association.

To view the new Enhanced Geothermal Systems maps constructed with SMU's data , go here to get the latest version of Google Earth, then download and open the file here.

Check out the videos below for more info on EGS systems. The second video, a Google.org animation of the Habanero EGS facility currently under development in Australia, has no sound.

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About the Author
Randolph Jonsson A native San Franciscan, Randolph attended the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland before finding his way to the film business. Eventually, he landed a job at George Lucas' Industrial Light + Magic, where he worked on many top-grossing films in both the camera and computer graphics departments. A proud member of MENSA, he's passionate about technology, optimal health, photography, marine biology, writing, world travel and the occasional, well-crafted gin and tonic!   All articles by Randolph Jonsson
9 Comments

Well, gee, that's the big breakthrough? "Hey, if we throw water in the bottom of this hot hole, it'll make steam!"

I kinda thought they already did it that way.

Mark in SB
28th October, 2011 @ 10:14 am PDT

I'm more worried about what will happen if there's a minor or major earthquake near one of these, the tectonic plates would probably move enough to seal off the holes they drilled?

Will Sharp
28th October, 2011 @ 12:16 pm PDT

Drill Baby Drill !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

jingleburp
28th October, 2011 @ 10:17 pm PDT

I wouldn't want to permit this type of dependency until there is a study on the length of time it would take until the energy is recovered.

Robert DuBois
29th October, 2011 @ 12:47 am PDT

The current scientific explanation for the Earth's temperature gradient is a combination of heat left over from the planet's initial formation, decay of radioactive elements, and freezing of the inner core.

Robert DuBois
29th October, 2011 @ 01:11 am PDT

This is really exciting!

Carlos Grados
29th October, 2011 @ 03:03 am PDT

If the temperature is adequate Rankine cycle engines (steam) will work but Sterling cycle engines need only a modest temperature differential, and are not inconvenienced to near the extent by minerals and/or droplets in the flow.

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re; Will Sharp

Wells are remarkably resilient so long as the well pipe does not actually cross the fault they survive quite well.

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re;Robert DuBois

Dependency is in the eye of the beholder. Our dependency on oil is vastly overrated, oil is simply convenient and relatively cheap, once the price rises to the point that an alternative is cheap enough to pay for the inconvenience the switch over will take place virtually overnight. The cost effectiveness of a geothermal power plant should only be a concern to the investors, who will loose their money if it is not cost effective. The governments involvement should be limited to enforcement of reasonable environmental, property, contract, and fraud laws.

As to your second post if the scientific community doesn't consider tidal stresses as part of the heat source they should.

Slowburn
30th October, 2011 @ 02:31 am PDT

I'm concerned about what happens when we start sucking the heat out of our planet-and we will eventually take enough out. At one geothermal site in Germany,they have already experienced tremors.

gragraposker
30th October, 2011 @ 11:39 pm PDT

re; gragraposker

I couldn't find any links to the cause being extracted heat. The tremors I found reference to in Germany, and Switzerland appeared to be caused by steam changing presser or moving underground, or injecting a lubricant (water) into already unstable rock.

Slowburn
31st October, 2011 @ 02:14 am PDT
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