Geothermal energy engineers plan to pump 24 million gallons of water into the side of a dormant volcano in Central Oregon this summer to demonstrate new green clean energy technology.
About Renewable Energy
The engineers have high hopes that the water comes back to the surface fast enough and hot enough to create cheap, clean electricity independent of sunlight or wind without shaking the earth and disrupting nearby locals.
Renewable energy has been held back by cheap natural gas, weak demand for power and waning political concern over global warming. Efforts to use the earth’s heat to generate power, known as geothermal energy, have been further hampered by technical problems and worries that tapping it can cause earthquakes.
‘‘We know the heat is there,’’ said Susan Petty, president of AltaRock. ‘‘The big issue is can we circulate enough water through the system to make it economic.’’
Volcano power seems novel, but it has been supplying clean energy to communities in Central America for many years. The Bouillante geothermal plant on Guadeloupe has been operating since 1986. St. Lucia and Martinique began a 120 megawatts project last year.
Google’s Investment In The Project
Google’s interest in the project is clear: it needs a low cost energy source for its datacenters. Powering Web server infrastructure -not just the actual hardware itself – can be the biggest roadblock to datacenter rollouts. Other investors in the project bring the total for this particle project to be around $43 million.
Achieving greater energy efficiency and investments in renewable electricity are two ways that this cost driver is being addressed. Google has invested around $1 billion in renewable power projects; Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft have also taken forays into clean energy.
How Geothermal Energy Works
The heat in the earth’s crust has been used to generate power for more than a century. Engineers gather hot water or steam that bubbles near the surface and use it to spin a turbine that creates electricity. Most of those areas have been exploited. The new frontier is places with hot rocks, but no cracks in the rocks or water to deliver the steam.
To tap that heat and grow geothermal energy from a tiny niche into an important source of green energy, engineers are working on a new technology called Enhanced Geothermal Systems.
‘‘To build geothermal in a big way beyond where it is now requires new technology, and that is where EGS comes in,’’ said Steve Hickman, a research geophysicist with the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California.
Wells are drilled deep into the rock and water is pumped in, creating tiny fractures in the rock, a process known as hydroshearing.
Cold water is pumped down production wells into the reservoir, and the steam is drawn out.
Hydroshearing is similar to the process known as hydraulic fracturing, used to free natural gas from shale formations. But fracking uses chemical-laden fluids, and creates huge fractures. Pumping fracking wastewater deep underground for disposal likely led to recent earthquakes in Arkansas and Ohio.
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