Northwest Researchers Work To Boost Geothermal Power

Aug 25, 2014

There’s been a lot of hype around geothermal power. This type of power uses heat from below the earth’s surface to provide a steady, renewable source of energy. But the field’s been slow to take off. With help from federal grants, several Northwest researchers are hoping to push the technology forward. For EarthFix, Courtney Flatt has more.

A geothermal power plant. There’s been a lot of hype around geothermal power, which uses heat from the below the earth’s surface to provide energy. Several Northwest researchers are hoping to push the renewable energy forward.
Credit Scott Ableman / Flickr

Geothermal power fills in a lot of gaps left by other renewable energy sources. For one: it doesn’t depend on the weather, like wind and solar.

But many proposed geothermal projects in the Northwest, and across the country, have yet to really take off.

McGrail: “Geothermal is suffering from the fact that right now, natural gas is very, very cheap.”

That’s Pete McGrail. He’s a scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. He and fellow researchers are trying to increase geothermal’s revenue stream.

Energy beneath the earth’s surface releases a liquid. Within this liquid there are rare earth metals.

McGrail: “They are very important materials that impact a whole spectrum of different industries.”

These minerals could be used to build wind turbines, LED light bulbs, computers, and cell phones.

McGrail says profits from selling these metals could bring in extra cash for geothermal plants.

The lab isn’t the only place trying to boost geothermal power.

Susan Petty is the CEO of AltaRock, a Seattle-based company that’s testing a geothermal drilling technique called enhanced geothermal systems.

Petty says the technology could increase plant productivity and open up new areas to geothermal drilling.

Petty: “Recently there hasn’t been that much new technology in geothermal exploration.”

The technology uses high-pressured water to create fractures in the rock. It’s a process similar to fracking. Fluid pumped into the fractures heats up and is pumped back out and used as energy.

They’re testing out this new technology south of Bend, Oregon.

Some researchers and people living near potential sites worry that fractures created by the high-pressured water could cause earthquakes.

David Oppenheimer is a seismologist with the US Geological Survey. He says earthquakes triggered by geothermal projects are usually too small to feel.

Oppenheimer says seismographic analysis can predict earthquake risks. v Oppenheimer: “When you go into a project, it’s understood what the hazard is. And then you can understand the impact on communities.”

In the Northwest, Washington’s Department of Natural Resources also received a federal grant to map potential geothermal sites.

This month, the U.S. Department of Energy gave $18 million to geothermal development projects around the country.

Copyright 2014 Northwest News Network