Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Mining Heat from the Earth? New Technology Shows Promise

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Mining Heat from the Earth? New Technology Shows Promise

Article excerpt

Here's one vision for easing America's energy and emissions woes: Hundreds of drilling rigs are deployed throughout the country. But they're not prospecting for oil; they're looking for underground rock hot enough to produce steam-driven electricity. The potential? Enough power to provide 10 percent of US electricity by 2050 - with near-zero emissions of greenhouse gases.

That's the promise of "enhanced geothermal systems," or EGS, says a recent report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.

There are just two major catches. First, about $800 million in research and development is needed over the next decade to make the drilling technology cost-effective. Second, the Department of Energy is trying to kill the program by ending its funding.

On Monday, the DOE unveiled a $24.3 billion fiscal 2008 budget with more funding for nuclear power, alternative fuels, and science programs - but nothing for geo- thermal.

"The department will conduct our own internal review and assessment of the [MIT] report and its recommendations," DOE spokesman Craig Stevens said in an e-mail. But geothermal energy has "already entered the mainstream," he added. The DOE aims to fund new technologies.

Some parts of the technology are indeed mature. For years, conventional geothermal technology has been tapping mostly hot springs formations in a few isolated locations in the Western US, providing about 0.3 percent of the nation's electricity. The newer, enhanced approach identified by MIT could be developed virtually anywhere.

"It appears that large areas of the United States are suitable for future geo- thermal exploitation in the near term that have not been considered in the past," states the recent report, sponsored by the DOE and written by an 18-member panel convened by MIT. "Most of the key technical requirements to make [it] work economically over a wide area of the country are in effect, with remaining goals easily within reach."

The report, released Jan. 22, corroborates other reports - by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory last year and the Western Governors Association in 2005 - of a massive "deep geothermal" resource.

"We should give strong credence to the MIT report," says Dan Reicher, former assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy in the Clinton years. "With these deep resources, we have the potential to access new energy over most of the country, including the East Coast. This is the moment to be adding to, not cutting, the geothermal R&D budget."

Since the 1970s, a few EGS systems have been tested in a half- dozen places in the US, and test systems are now being developed in France and Australia. The EGS promise has grown along with advances in oil and gas drilling technology and US-industry research partnerships.

Unlike drilling for oil, often done in softer, permeable rock, the enhanced geo- thermal approach requires boring down one to six miles into solid rock. Power plants would inject water down one well, passing it through crevices in the hot rock, then extract steam through another well. …

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