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New Geothermal Data System Could Open Up Clean-Energy Reserves

Forgotten and filed away decades ago, millions of documents on geothermal research are now helping scientists make harvesting Earth’s energy affordable



Flickr/ Chris Beckett

Geologic data does not come cheap, especially when you are using it to build a multimillion-dollar geothermal power plant. Just ask Susan Petty, president and chief technology officer at AltaRock Energy. Her company is part of a $43.8-million pilot project to tap thermal energy from Oregon's Newberry Volcano. Engineers are injecting water deep underground to fracture superheated rocks and create a geothermal reservoir. Their eventual goal is to recirculate pressurized steam back to the surface to test a new kind of technology called an enhanced geothermal system (EGS). Unlike conventional power plants that rely on near-surface hydrothermal systems like springs and geysers, EGS can draw energy up to depths of three to five kilometers. Over the next 50 years, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates, EGS power plants could produce 100 gigawatts of economically viable geothermal energy, an amount equivalent to about 10 percent of the country's current electrical capacity.

Yet geothermal wells need to be drilled in the right place. Without data on the distribution and quantity of geothermal energy in the upper part of the earth's crust or a volcano as a reference point, wells may not produce much energy at all. To date, two to five out of every 10 geothermal wells prospected end up dry. Petty says that, in terms of the available exploration data, the geothermal industry is in the same place oil and gas companies were during the early 1900s. Wells cost between $2 million and $5 million, meaning geothermal investors risk losing millions on poor odds, Petty says. “The risk involved in geothermal prospecting sets the industry apart from other renewables.”

The risky nature of the business could soon change, however.

A wealth of geologic data from all 50 states and the Gulf of Mexico has been sitting unused in state and federal filing cabinets for decades. The Arizona Geological Survey is leading a coalition of universities and federal agencies on a nationwide treasure hunt to find and digitize these legacy data in a National Geothermal Data System (NGDS) to eliminate some of the financial risk companies like AltaRock face while prospecting for geothermal resources. Since the project's inception in 2008 under $35-million in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy Geothermal Technologies Office, collaborators have digitized information from over 1.25 million oil and gas, water, and geothermal wells and expect to have as many as three million wells in the system by the end of the year.

"It has been a rescue mission," says Roland Horne, director of Stanford University’s geothermal program. Project collaborators have found a wellspring of geothermal exploratory data in basements and old file cabinets. The legacy data come from extensive surveys of geothermal resources that were funded by the states and federal government in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. A prime example is a 1975-to-1992 DOE survey of geopressured resources in the Gulf of Mexico. The survey documents data from 16 wells off the coasts of Louisiana and Texas that show geopressured and geothermal energy reserves in the Gulf exceed the energy contained in all the conventional natural gas reserves of the continental U.S. At the time, the geothermal energy could not be profitably commercialized, so the data were filed away and forgotten.

Previously, getting ahold of geothermal exploration data depended on whom you knew, says Lee Allison, director of the Arizona Geological Survey. "A lot of this stuff was only available if you knew the people and could say, 'Hey, let me have access to your data,'" Allison says. One of the largest sets of geophysical data in the NGDS was collected and digitized by Southern Methodist University geophysicist David Blackwell and a team of researchers in 2011. They worked under a grant from Google.org to digitize data from 35,000 different locations. Their work shows that geothermal energy can generate three million megawatts of renewable electricity—approximately 10 times the capacity of U.S. coal power plants.

The NGDS will also include research from more than 200 projects funded by $300 million in 2009 DOE stimulus funding. "The DOE decided if it is going to spend this money, then the research needs to be accessible to everyone," Petty says. "So, essentially, if you are a private company that takes money from the DOE for geothermal development, you have to feed your surveys and research data back into system." Petty says that AltaRock is getting ready to post its research on the Newberry Volcano pilot project into the data system and that the geophysical, seismic, and research data is worth around $8 million.

The AZGS is working with Microsoft Research on visualization tools to make interactive 3D maps of the data. Allison says that the ultimate goal is to capture the full geologic and geophysical profile of geothermal energy reserves across the country. "All of these data will be live and accessible to anyone, using nothing more than a Web browser and open-source software."

View the Interactive Map at State Geothermal Data

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