What we should be focusing on for power generation

Example geothermal power plant

While Jim Hansen lobbies states to get newly designed clean burning coal fired generation plants not built, California remains lukewarm still on an opportunity to extract geothermal heat for a variety of locations in California. Nevada on the other hand, is moving forward fast, expecting to quadruple their energy output from geothermal.

Last year while I was surveying Lovelock, NV USHCN station, I happened upon a geothermal plant along Interstate-80. You can see it here on Google Earth. While it doesn’t look like much from the air, you can see the main building and the array of pipes to the wells. i’d been meaning to blog about it, and today was the day.

There is quite a bit of area in the USA that can be exploited for geothermal energy. Most of it in the west. 

Click for a larger image 

Low and moderate temperature geothermal resources are widely distributed throughout the western and central U.S. and can be seen in Figure 1. There are also a few low-temperature geothermal resources that occur in the east.

There has been several major efforts in assessing the potential for low-temperature geothermal resources in the U.S. The first major effort in the 1980’s included 17 states which resulted in geothermal resource maps, prepared by the National Geophysical Data Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), that are still being used today. The latest effort, which included 10 of the 17 original states, was in the early 1990’s, and which resulted mainly in individual digital databases of all known geothermal wells and springs for a total of over 9,000 wells and springs. The 10 states were: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Washington (Lienau and Ross, 1996).

The low-temperature resource assessment completed in 1990’s included another task. The task was to complete a statewide study of collocated geothermal resources with the only criteria being a collocated community with a resource temperature above 50° C (122°F) and located within 8 km (5 miles) of a community (many of which have <1,000 population). There were 1,723 wells and springs identified with a temperature over 50° C (122°F) with 1,469 of them located within 8 km (5 miles) of a community. There were a total of 271 communities identified within the 10 western states.

The oldest, most versatile and most common use of geothermal energy is direct-use applications; although, most people associate geothermal with power generation. Directuse applications include: greenhouse heating, aquaculture pond and raceway heating, space and district heating, industrial applications such as food processing, and resorts and spas. The fastest growing direct-use applications are for greenhouses and aquaculture, which can be seen in Figure 2.

The reports of the original survey teams and the new information from the additional six states documents a total of 11,775 wells and springs in the databases with the new states producing 2,731 more entries. The number of collocated sites increased to 404 from the previous 271 for the 10 states. The total of wells and springs with a temperature over 50° C (122°F) went from 1723 to 2211, which is an increase of 28%.

There’s a lot of heat out there, I hope it gets more exploration and application. Since California imports a good deal of it’s electric power, and since demand remains high and is expected to increase, this seems like a no-brainer for a business model.

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38 thoughts on “What we should be focusing on for power generation

  1. Anthony,
    I think we should focus on producing our electricity with nuclear power with proven standardized plant designs as the French have done. Standard designs would get rid of some of the issues we have with our “one of a kind” plants that made them so expensive to build. If we “overbuilt” with nuclear, we could use the excess electricity for desalinization or hydrogen production and start looking for a way to store the hydrogen for transportation. Anyway, just my two cents.

  2. What would happen if you poured a large volume of sea water into these geothermally warm areas in Southern California and let the resulting steam vent to the atmosphere? Would that alleviate the current “drought”?

  3. Geothermal could make a contribution but it will not be a major player in power production. We will need to build nuclear power plants as well as coal fired plants capable of producing power and also producing by products of coal e.g., natural gas, oil, and oil liquids (diesel, gasoline, jet fuels).

  4. I like geothermal too. But be prepared for screams about potential earthquakes from the radical greenies. It might be end up being too expensive litigation wise as nuclear almost is.

  5. It looks like there is a lot of energy available underground! It would be a shame not to tap it. I hadn’t thought of direct use for heating, but that seems like a wonderful idea (no steam turbine required). Look at those areas of ID, MT, and WY. Just imagine pumping up hot water to heat your house during the cold winter. I can see why Arizona is pursuing this. Almost the whole state is red! I would love to see a higher resolution map for southern California if you can find it. It looks like some of those dots might be nearby.
    Cheers.

  6. A few issues back in Popular Science was an article about a low temp geothermal power plant at an Alaska resort that replaced a $1,000/day diesel powerplant. Built by Trane, it used groundwater that was well below boiling and low 50 degree groundwater for cooling and an airconditioning refrigerant to power a gas turbine. The article mentioned that most oil-wells have appropriate temp. groundwater as a by-product sufficient to be self-powered.
    We need to break the environmental lobby before they break the country.

  7. Icelanders have been using it to generate electricity and heat there homes for years. Worth a go, in my opinion.

  8. Geothermal is not cheap. It was tested at Mt. Meager in BC back in the eighties and found at that time to be too expensive vs. hydro power. The one plany I am aware of in the US is in SE California. I’m not sure it is or ever has been considered economical. The one in NZ pays for part of its costs by recovery metals precipitated by flashed steam.
    Now that the environmentalist have eliminated hydro as a viable source and since nukes are soo baad, maybe the costs will better or be comparable to solar, tidal or wind.

  9. If CO2 is your alleged problem, then sanity says, nuclear is your only answer. Unless you have something entirely different than meeting energy needs in mind. It would appear there is something else in play, would it not.

  10. Antony
    Here in Iceland we have several geothermal power plants producing electricity and hot water. The photo on the top shows one of them at Nesjavellir near Thingvallavatn lake.
    Thanks for your very informative website which I visit often. Sometimes I borrow information from it for my blog 🙂
    Agust

  11. Here in Northern Ontario, some people use geothermal to aid in winter heating and summer cooling. The pipes are drilled down into the Canadian Shield to a depth where the rock is a consistant 15 C. The system warms outside air in the winter and cools the inside air in the summer. In the winter, another heat source, like natrual gas or electric baseboard heaters, is needed to warm the house the last 5 to 7 C to room temperature. — John M Reynolds

  12. First Law of Thermodynamics: There is no such thing as a free lunch.
    Second Law of Thermodynamics: The better lunch is, the more it costs.
    Warm water and low pressure steam are fine for space and water heating, as well as for some low temperature processes.
    The real potential for geothermal is “dry hot rock” geothermal. However, drilling depth and downhole temperature currently limit access to this resource. Water availability is also an issue, since fresh water resources are already stressed; and, high temperature salt water presents another series of technical issues.
    “The answer, my friends, is (not) blowin’ in the wind.”

  13. dear anthony,
    long time lurker…first time poster…appreciate your work…california has a growing compressed natural gas network…perhaps you could find time to blog about CNG technology as a solution to gasoline and imported oil…would like to hear thoughts of possible expert readers on CNG merits…tks

  14. I still believe the future is nuclear. The application for a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain was filed two days ago, so all I can say is, “It’s about time.”
    In addition, there’s still about $1 trillion of the cleanest burning coal in the world sitting idle in Utah. Somebody in Washington needs to grow a pair and challenge the Executive Order from the Clinton years that inexplicably declared the Kaiparowitz Plateau off-limits. We need that coal.
    As far as geothermal, the big negative that I’ve always read in the discussions concerns the costs involved.

  15. deadwood (00:16:29) : Geothermal is not cheap. It was tested at Mt. Meager in BC back in the eighties and found at that time to be too expensive vs. hydro power.
    Hydro power is perhaps not the best comparison. Certainly not everywhere. Anyway, the geothermal energy market is indeed beginning to heat up. As the article just cited explains, one of the main drivers is the production tax credit, which now (finally) extends to geothermal energy. And as the map Anthony provided shows, there’s a lot of “low hanging fruit” available in terms of resources. And with http://www1.eere.energy.gov/geothermal/future_geothermal.html“>a moderate investment in R&D (something else which has been woefully neglected), the number of resources could that could become available is almost limitless. Hot dry rock geothermal (aka as EGS, or enhanced geothermal) is the real lodestone for the future though, and finally the DOE has been supplied some funding to explore it.
    What happened outside of Basel (mentioned by John A) is indeed unfortunate. But it is also unusual. Meanwhile, in Australia, development at the Habanero site is proceeding, though somewhat behind schedule because of delivery delays of key components. However, drilling of additional wells is proceeding. What’s particularly interesting about the Habanero site is that (to the best of my knowledge) it is the first true (deep well) EGS project in the world.

  16. This is a lot like the Rev’s electric runabout. In some places it makes a lot of sense. I believe SanFran has used geothermal for many years, or at least used to. It won’t solve all our problems, in many places it doesn’t make sense. But where it does, and can be implemented at reasonable cost, go for it.
    We can’t do more nukes until we address the reprocessing issue. Too much spent fuel in cooling tanks to bury in the ground. Bush should have reversed Carter’s decision not to reprocess on day 1. France does it with little problem. We need a standard design. And build new plants away from urban areas, if only to reduce the endless lawsuits that follow.
    It’s gonna take a lot of little answers. A bit here, a bit there. G-T can be one of them.

  17. I think I remember reading a while back about a town in Europe (Germany, maybe?) that switched to geothermal to “help save the planet.” Part of the place had started to sink due to it being held up by the pressure from hot gases underneath. Bummer.

  18. Whoa! Anthony!! I thought I liked geothermal too, but is that WATER VAPOR I see belching–sorry, approved journalistic usage would be “spewing,” out of those geothermal stacks??? Is this a ploy to find out if there’s something the Sierra Club likes even less than coal/CO2?

  19. AEGeneral: As far as geothermal, the big negative that I’ve always read in the discussions concerns the costs involved.
    According to this article, the current levelized cost of geothermal electricity is about double that of coal, which sells for around five cents per kilowatt-hour. Then again, in the case of a geothermal plant the cost of the “fuel” is essentially free. The cost of coal is not. Thus, unlike coal, once a geothermal plant is up and running you’ve essentially locked in your price for the lifetime of the plant. The cost of operating a coal plant, on the other hand, will always be heavily dependent on the cost of coal. The operational lifetime of both types of plants is likely to be on the scale of many decades. So if you don’t try to accurately project what coal costs will be in, say, 25-30 years, you may end up shooting yourself in the foot if you base your decision on current costs alone. Let’s call that the “levelized cost projection risk”, and obviously it is a principle that relates only to an individual plant.
    But in addition to the “levelized cost projection risk”, there is also another, broader concept to consider: in many new technology contexts, costs typically drop as market penetration increases. Unfortunately, market penetration doesn’t usually occur unless costs drop (or the cost of alternatives increase). This conondrum is commonly called “economy of scale”. And that’s what the production tax credit (PTC) is designed to address — it reduces the effective up-front capital costs, thus stimulating deployment of new energy technologies so that economy of scale principles can take hold. Thus, the PTC not only helps to reduce the “levelized cost projection risk” for each individual plant, it also enhances the possibility that the cost of future plants will drop. Let’s call that the “economy of scale projection risk”.
    It seems to me that decisions made in the here and now have to take account of both kinds of risks. In other words, it matters less what the cost of a given energy technology is in the here and now and matters more whether that technology is going to pay off in the future. And that’s true even in a depressed economy. We in the US like to criticize the Europeans for investing in various forms of alternative energy technologies, because at present it appears they’ve been chasing expensive windmills (both figuratively and literally). I suggest, however, that in the years to come their investment may very well pay off handsomely. In much the same way that the Norwegians positioned themselves to do very well in the cell phone market, the Danes have positioned themselves in the wind energy market (it’s telling that McCain presented his “climate change” speech a couple of weeks ago in front of a Vestra wind mill farm), the Germans in solar PV, the Spaniards (and Isaelis) in solar thermal, the French in nuclear, the Icelanders and Italians in geothermal, and the Japanese in batteries, HEVs, PHEVs and EVs. There’s something very wrong with that.
    For whatever reason we in the US seem to have blinders on when it comes to energy — or at least a consuming preoccupation with drills. In the US alone the energy market accounts for over a trillion dollars a year — several hundreds of billions of that are transmitted overseas, much of it filling the pockets of obnoxious regimes and swelling our trade deficit. Yet total investment in energy R&D accounts for less that 2% of that. Most of that is private investment, and mostly in oil exploration. Federal expenditures (in 2007) in all energy R&D amounted to about $3 billion — and most of that was in either fossil fuels, ethanol, or nuclear (and by the way, for geothermal research in the 2007 budget the Bush administration recommended the round sum of… $0; fortunately Congress wasn’t willing to go quite that far). In contrast, (and again in 2007) the biomedical industry (which is somewhat smaller than the energy industry) spent about 8% of private funds in R&D (most of that in pharmaceuticals) and got federal assistance to the tune of $28 billion. Certainly there’s a lot of money to be had in biomedicine, so I don’t begrudge that. But it seems to me there’s even more to be had in energy. Sooner or later we here in the US are going to have to wake up and smell the coffee. Either that or get left behind.

  20. There are no silver bullets. The Nuclear Reduction Committee regulations have created significant finacial and time obstacles which are unlikly to be repealed. There are however, many localy available opportunities. Geothermal in the west. Dynamic hydro inland (270 navigational locks on the upper mississippi alone) and on the coast. Hydrous pyrolysis of MSW (garbage) can generate 1-2 megawatts and a barrel of diesel per ton. We can replace energy hungry aerobic treatment of sewage with energy producing anaerobic. There is no reason Amarillo and KC can’t be powered by thier stockyards. Yes there are regulartory and financial roadblocks here too, but you can look at it two ways. Every solution has a problem or there is a solution to every problem. Take geothermal. Many depleted oil and gas wells have a bottom hole temp of 400-500 degrees and can be made to produce steam while continuing to produce small amonts of oil and gas.

  21. These guys have just about cracked it in OZ, but business plan on $40/tonne Carbon tax
    http://www.geodynamics.com.au/IRM/content/home.html
    It is a long way from population centers but very near large mines (Uranium).
    Incidentally, it is just a nuke plant – its the natural Ur, Th, K radioactive decay that makes the heat! Good news there is a natural water source down hole.
    I like it as using Oil well drilling technology which is my work…

  22. Pericles (23:49:42) :
    “Underground coal fires could be a good source of geothermal heat, with the added bonus of eventually extinguishing the fire.”
    Underground coal fires can be awfully resistant to being put out. The nine remaining folks in Centralia Pennsylvania know that, everyone else has abandoned the town. Even their ZIP code has been retired. Burning for 46 years….
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centralia%2C_Pennsylvania

  23. I’m surprised that no one has mentioned the “other geothermal,” perhaps it should be called “geothermal assist.” Essentially it uses local near surface ground water as the end point of a heat engine. In New England, the ground temp is about 50F. In the summer air conditioning that pumps heat into that is far more efficient than pumping into 80-90F air. In the winter, pumping heat from there is far more efficient than squeezing it from sub-20F air.
    http://www.northeastgeo.com/
    http://www.nhec.com/residential_residentialheatpumps.php
    Oh, about your map. Please scratch Yellowstone National Park off the map. It’s just far too neat a place to convert to energy production. Well, until it blows, but then people will have a different set of priorities….

  24. Interesting. I always looked at thermal surface water as the perfect winter heat and garden provider. Lots of discussion today on this Geothermal energy that was briefly related some 15 years ago near Calistoga, California.
    The State Inspector for Geothermal development in several of the ‘developing sites’ made a statement back then that has been presented today. His contention is that the really hot Geo-water is deep and lethal to most animal life. His job was to oversee the safety aspects of maintaining the separation of deep geothermal water with the man created below surface heat exchanger He advocated that Nuclear Power was safer to manipulate with the technology than influences of plate tectonics.

  25. The Klamath Falls area, in southern Oregon, has hot water so close to the surface that some cattle ranchers have to use cooling tanks to make the water drinkable. (It’s in a rift valley, so the high temperatures are not surprising.)

  26. The potential for earthquakes is real from geothermal. Check out the area East of Cloverdale on this map.
    But I wonder about longer term impacts from extracting so much heat from the Earth’s crust. If it were developed on a massive scale and power extracted from much deeper locations (say, boreholes to near the mantle), we could possibly be faced with some unintended consequences by depleting that are of heat.
    Stop or even slow volcanism and you kill the planet. I would rather go with nuclear power and recycling of spent fuel. See Scientific American, December 2005 for an article on “smarter” nuclear energy.

  27. The Geysers is one of the biggest geothermal developments on the west coast. And it almost died due to mismanagement. The problem in any geothermal development is having the appropriate surface area for heat transfer. So, in the geysers case, they withdrew mcuh of the naturally occuring groundwater without trying to reinject, and the way subsurface environments work, once an area collapses (due to normal soil or rock hydrostatic pressures) they are difficult to open up. Geysers dodged a bullet by beginning to perform reinjection, thus making sure that the rock spaces remained open.
    In dry rock geothermal, the problem is one of trying to fracture the rock to get proper heat transfer surface area. This is typically done with a mixture of high explosives and high pressure water injection. But getting those fractures to open up and then economically recovering the water – and getting proper flow regimes to start – is no simple matter.
    Much of the economically available geothermal has been devloped in the continental US (outside of national parks). The new type of hot rock geothermal is still well on the horizen. THough geothermal is great, solar ironically may be more cost effective when there isn’t an available hot ground water source associated with them, and that’s saying alot. Drilling deep is expensive, and the potential return is high risk.
    Crosspatch: you are putting the cart before the horse. Their are earthquakes in cloverdale (home of the geysers) because it is volcanic, not because there are geothermal power plants. IF we could make geothermal cost effective, it would have no appreciable affect on the temperature of the interior of the earth, which is driven by nuclear decay and not by some residual heat of planetary formation. We wouldn’t be slowing or stopping volcanism in the least.
    For those who are interested in the safest form of nuclear power, thorium reactors are the way to go. Thorium is widely abundant, and has negative reactivity – it needs a neutron source to react at all. There are some suggestions that we could convert current nuclear reactors to thorium, and burn up all the fuel that’s slated for yucca – by burning up, I mean transmuting the long lived radioactives into shorter lived ones – on the order of 200 years and perhaps 5% of their current mass. We could easily use yucca to hold those – the big problem with yucca is that no one can predict what could occur in 10000 years. 200? We can do that standing on our heads….

  28. I should mention that there are major differences between hot rock geothermal and the traditional geothermal. As mentioned earlier, traditional geothermal is about twice the cost of coal, which is indeed great. But hot rock geothermal is way more expensive, and the risk is very high. Most of the research sites just didn’t pan out because you can’t get enough heat transfer area or water into the rock to make it even near to being cost effective. That’s why there’s not R&D money for it in DOE’s budget. They’ve already poured a ton of money down that hole, and it came up dry. Like most hot rock geothermal.

  29. crosspatch (08:53:56) : But I wonder about longer term impacts from extracting so much heat from the Earth’s crust.
    Anything is possible, I guess. My guess is that the possibility of significant impacts is vanishingly small. But if it’s not, then as davidcobb indicated it’s an issue for oil extraction as well — especially considering that more and more of the oil reserves being found are very deep, and therefore very hot.
    Likewise, sinkholes are by no means unique to geothermal heat mining. For example, Texas is dotted with them as a result of extracting oil and gas reserves. Florida also has them as a result of extracting drinking water. Bummer.

  30. You all might also checkout what Stirling Engine Systems is doing with Solar at the Sandia Labs. Stirling engine was invented in 1815 (that’s right1) with zero emissions. Typical dish puts out enough juice for 9-12 average homes. 30%+efficiency. 100 sq miles would power most of the country, until the sun goes down. Currently under contract with the State of California.

  31. Brendan, I beg to differ. Actually, I agree with a lot of what you said. My understanding of The Geysers site is largely consistent with what you said. I also agree that the big challenge for hot dry rock geothermal is in “stimulating” the reservoir. And if you try it and it doesn’t work you’re stuck with a dry hole and out millions of dollars. I wonder, however, how helpful the new horizontal drilling techniques used in the oil industry might be in that regard. Nonetheless I think your main point is consistent with my understanding, that HDR geothermal would benefit greatly from better techniques to identify and exploit potential reserviors. But as I said before (by way of a previous citation), many very smart people are inclined to believe that a moderate investment in R&D might change the situation dramatically.
    So that’s one way I beg to differ. The other is that as the CNBC article I cited in an earlier comment indicated, there are quite a number of economically available geothermal sites available for exploitation. The second citation in Anthony’s topic corroborates that point.
    Finally, I think you need to make a better case for thorium reactors. They sound very interesting. But as far as I know there aren’t any yet. No demonstration reactors, and certainly no pilot reactors. So on the RDD (research/development/deployment) curve they aren’t even out of the starting gate. Am I wrong? Frankly, I’d love to be wrong, because it sounds like a great idea. I’m just not convinced.

  32. So that’s one way I beg to differ. The other is that as the CNBC article I cited in an earlier comment indicated, there are quite a number of economically available geothermal sites available for exploitation. The second citation in Anthony’s topic corroborates that point.

    I wonder how many of those sites will have some endangered weed, or one-of-a-kind bacterium, or almost extinct nasal discharge or something which environMENTALists can use to block any development.
    Seriously though, if they’re against oil drilling for drilling’s sake, why would they be in favor of drilling for any other sake? They don’t really want cheap and clean forms of energy, they want people gone.

  33. Geothermal power is a viable and substantial source for power. The one mentioned in the article is called ryepatch it has never been on line. The cost and resource were not worth it at the time of inception. since then someone has taken all the electrical wiring in the plant and is now being rebuilt. In the reno nevada area there are 7 active sights generating power. More than one has multiple plants. There are two ways to use the resource one is to keep the water under pressure and not leet it go to steam and the other is to let the water go to steam and become what is called a flash plant the first is usually a binary cycle. this means the water is used to heat a motive fluid and the motive fluid flashes across the turbine in turn turning the generater and producing power. the motive fluid is then cooled and the process starts all over again, the water is then injected back into the ground where it starts its cycle all over again. the water and motive fluid never comes into contact with each other so water out heat taken out and water put back into the ground. to my knowledge there are three more geo plants in the process for central nevada. Our water is at 360 degrees f. the pump depth is approximately 1500 feet. Yes wells are expensive to drill but the return is there. There was also mention of french nuclear power plants there is at this time a nuke plant in the works back east in conjunction with the french company. i am not an engineer i just help keep one of the plants running as an I & E

  34. Thorium reactors are further along than just paper studies. In Norway, Statkraft, Thor Energy, and Bergen Energi have applied for licenses for Thorium reactors. India has a fast breeder reactor under construction that is scheduled to be completed in 2010, and it is designed to produce Thorium fuel for Thorium reactors. Interestingly India has had a 3 stage nuclear development plan for about 50 years which was to do: (1) heavy water reactors, then (2)Uranium based reactors to produce Plutonium for reactors, and finally fast breeders to product Thorium for Thorium reactors (plus India has decent Thorium reserves which can be mined.

  35. Anthony,
    I gots a question, a poser, a conundrum. Tried to find a thread where it fit, and this is as good as it gets.
    Talking about alternative energy sources – there are tradeoffs with any of them. Nuclear (which I don’t see as an “alternative” source, we should be whole hog into this) has the problem of waste disposal. Solar – the problem of manufacturing waste (pretty toxic stuff) and Watt/dollar. Wind – other than killing a few friendly flying things, not much of a downside (other than $$$) and reliability.
    But what about this – there has to be an energy transfer from the prevailing wind to the turbine through the airfoil. It seems to me the wind would have less velosity after trading some energy with the tower. There is an example in sailboat races – the upwind boat can remove enough energy from the wind to slow a downwind competitor – simply by taking the energy out of the wind in that small area.
    Seems to this old engineer that if we put enough windmills up, there is going to be a change in prevailing winds due to a loss of energy, and therefore a change in climate. What “enough of a loss” is is open to discussion. Do you know of any of us (bad word here) skeptics investigating this – I mean someone who’s not a knuckledragging engineer?
    Thanks!
    Mike
    REPLY: A good place to test this would be to look at the Altamont Pass and Tehachipi mtns in California to see if downwind changes have been observed. Both places are loaded with windmills. – Anthony

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