Friday, August 04, 2006

Geothermal Energy--Enough for the Next 250,000 Years

There are 100 million exojoules (quads) of energy available from geothermal energy in the earth. The total human energy use per year is a mere 400 exojoules per year. At that rate, it would take 250,000 years for humans to use all the energy available from the earth's stored heat.

This Technology Review interview with MIT Chemical Engineer Jefferson Tester sheds a great deal of light on this vastly under-utilised energy technology:

Technology Review: How much geothermal energy could be harvested?

Jefferson Tester: The figure for the whole world is on the order of 100 million exojoules or quads [a quad is one quadrillion BTUs]. This is the part that would be useable. We now use worldwide just over 400 exojoules per year. So you do the math, and you know you've got a very big source of energy.

How much of that massive resource base could we usefully extract? Imagine that only a fraction of a percent comes out. It's still big. A tenth of a percent is 100,000 quads. You have access to a tremendous amount of stored energy. And assessment studies have shown that this is thousands of times in excess of the amount of energy we consume per-year in the country. The trick is to get it out of the ground economically and efficiently and to do it in an environmentally sustainable manner. That's what a lot of the field efforts have focused on.

TR: We do use some geothermal today, don't we?

JT: In some cases nature has provided a means for extracting stored thermal energy. We have many good examples. The Geysers field in California is the largest geothermal field in the world -- it's been in production for over 40 years and produces high-quality steam that can readily be converted into electric power, and it's one of the rarities nature-wise in terms of what we have worldwide. In the mineral vernacular they would be regarded as sort of high-grade gold mines.

....TR: How do you plan to harvest stored heat from more areas?

JT: What we're trying to do is emulate what nature has provided in these high-grade systems. When we go very deep, [rocks] are crystalline. They're very impermeable. They aren't heat exchangers like we really need. We'd like to create porosity and permeability. [The rock] actually is filled with small fractures, so what you're trying to do is find those weak zones and reopen them. We need to engineer good connectivity between an injection set of wells and a production set of wells, and sweep fluid, in this case, water, over that rock surface so that we extract the thermal energy and bring it up another well.

TR: What technology do you need to open up the rock and harvest the heat?

JT: All the technology that goes into drilling and completing oil and gas production systems, [such as] stimulation of wells, hydraulic fracturing, deep-well completion, and multiple horizontal laterals, could in principle be extended to deep heat mining. Hydraulic methods have been the ones that hold the most promise, where you go into the system and you pressurize the rock -- just water pressure. If you go higher than the confinement stress, you will reopen the small fractures. We're just talking about using a few thousand pounds per square inch pressure -- it's surprising how easy this is to do. This is a technique that's used almost every single day to stimulate oil and gas reservoirs.

....TR: You're working on new drilling technology. How does this fit in?

JT: We feel that as part of a long-term view of the possibility of universal heat mining, we should also be thinking about revolutionary methods for cutting through rock and completing wells. Most of the drilling that's done today is made by crushing and grinding our way using very, very hard materials to crush through and grind through minerals in the rock. And it's been very successful. It's evolved tremendously over the past century, and we can do it, certainly, routinely, to 10 kilometers. But it costs a lot. So we're looking for a fundamental way to change the technology that would change the cost-depth relationship, and allow us to drill deeper in a much more cost-effective manner. It would open up the accessibility tremendously.

TR: What are the advantages compared with other renewable sources of energy?

JT: Geothermal has a couple of distinct differences. One, it is very scalable in baseload. Our coal-fired plants produce electricity 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The nuclear power plants are the same way. Geothermal can meet that, without any need for auxiliary storage or a backup system. Solar would require some sort of storage if you wanted to run it when the sun's not out. And wind can't provide it without any backup at 100 percent reliability, because the typical availability factor of a wind system is about 30 percent or so, whereas the typical availability factor of a geothermal system is about 90 percent or better.

....TR: How fast do you think artificial geothermal systems can be developed?

JT: With sufficient financing and a well-characterized field, you can go into existing areas right now and build a plant, getting it operational within a few years. But to get universal heat mining is going to take an investment which won't be quite that quick. It might take 10 or 15 years of investment to get to the point where you have confidence that you can do this in virtually any site that you can go to. Once it gets in place, though, it can be replicated. I think it's very reproducible and expandable. That's the great hope at least.

Between solar power and geothermal power, you would think there would be no need to burn oil, coal, or gas. Unfortunately, it takes time to develop alternative technologies. But knowing they are available, and on a scale that humans will never exhaust, should give forward thinking persons something to work on. Working productively is a good alternative to wetting your pants over ever-present fears of doom.

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