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News Room: Industry News

Geothermal Company Drills Into A Volcano

Monday, October 8, 2012   (0 Comments)
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Published in Forbes Magazine GREEN TECH

An AltaRock Energy drill rig on Newberry Volcano. Photo credit: Newberry Geothermal

A geothermal-energy company is shattering rock nearly two miles under Oregon’s largest volcano to see if a new drilling technique could succeed where similar attempts to make clean power have failed.

The pilot project isunderwayat Newberry Volcano despite concerns that have dogged other "enhanced geothermal” projects, such as small earthquakes, and techniques that are similar to the controversial practice offracking. Oh, and there’s the landscape’s habit of exploding.

Newberry Volcano, a massive hump rising south ofBend, Oregon, is 10 times the area of Mt. St. Helens and roughly the size of Rhode Island. "The Sleeping Giant,”as the U.S. Geological Survey calls it, last erupted 1,200 to 1,300 years ago.

"It’s a pretty high-threat volcano,” said Benjamin Pauk, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, in aninterviewwith Oregon Public Broadcasting. "It’s very likely it’s going to erupt in the future.”

However, this area to the west of the volcano has been provoked once before without incident. Starting in 2006, a company calledDavenport Newberryspent about $30 million to drill 10,000 feet down in hopes of finding water amid the 550°F rock that could be returned to the surface as steam. But the well was dry.

The current, $43.8 million project emerged when a new partner,AltaRock Energy, came on board with a technique that promised to add water where none existed. The project is half-funded by the Department ofEnergy, which estimates that tapping very deep hot rock like that at Newberry could produce10 percent of the U.S. power supplywithout burning fossil fuels or contributing to climate change.

AltaRock’s plan is to send pulses of highly pressurized water into the rock, forcing existing cracks to open wider so water can flow. Cold water is then flushed through the scalding-hot rock and returned to the surface as steam, which can be used to create electricity. The cooled water is then reinjected back into the earth.

AltaRock claims the rock-breaking technique, known as "hydroshearing,” uses none of the sometimes-secret and possibly toxic chemicals that the oil and gas industries employ in hydrofracking. The technique does use a small amount of chemicals that have createdsome local controversy, but the Bureau of LandManagementclaims they’re safe.

AltaRock claims that by creating a large network of cracks at multiple depths, it can lower the price of an enhanced geothermal plant, which is estimated to costs up to three times as much as a coal plant of similar size.

In aninterviewwith SustainableBusinessOregon, AltaRock’s president Susan Petty said:

"What we think we can do at Newberry is at least double the production from each well. If we could double the production of the well we could cut the cost of production from 30 percent to 35 percent. If we are really successful, we could cut it by 40 percent to 45 percent and that would make this a really economically successful proposition.”

The drilling and the surges of water create small earthquakes, most under a magnitude of 1 on the Richter scale but some that could spike to 3.4 or 4. Such "micro-quakes”spelled the endof a prior AltaRock project at the Geyers in California, where temblors left neighbors shaken and angry. The drill area by Newberry Volcano is much more remote.

If this experimental project is successful,DavenportNewberry plans to apply for permission to turn the site into a commercial power plant.


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