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Geothermal’s Earthquake Problem

In a recent post – It’s Always Something – I argued that for seemingly every renewable option, there is a trade-off. In that particular essay I was discussing a recent report that suggested that jatropha curcas – which I have written about as an intriguing option for renewable, liquid fuels – has very large water requirements. It is also poisonous, and was banned as an invasive species by the Western Australian State government. So as the title suggested, there always seems to be a catch with any of these options.

Geothermal energy is one of the most promising renewable energy technologies. There are a number of commercial geothermal plants already in operation (the U.S. is the world leader in geothermal energy), and the economics are much more favorable than some of the other choices. Geothermal electricity makes a much larger contribution to the electricity mix than does solar power, and does not suffer from the intermittency issue. A 2006 report from NREL (PDF warning) concluded that the potential for domestic geothermal energy at a depth of 2 miles (3 kilometers) is 30,000 times all current annual U.S. energy usage.

But while the current plants in operation utilize geothermal energy that is close to the surface, tapping deeper into the earth would hugely increase the geothermal potential. The only problem is that this sort of deep drilling can cause earthquakes. From the New York Times:

Deep in Bedrock, Clean Energy and Quake Fears

BASEL, Switzerland — Markus O. Häring, a former oilman, was a hero in this city of medieval cathedrals and intense environmental passion three years ago, all because he had drilled a hole three miles deep near the corner of Neuhaus Street and Shafer Lane. He was prospecting for a vast source of clean, renewable energy that seemed straight out of a Jules Verne novel: the heat simmering within the earth’s bedrock.

All seemed to be going well — until Dec. 8, 2006, when the project set off an earthquake, shaking and damaging buildings and terrifying many in a city that, as every schoolchild here learns, had been devastated exactly 650 years before by a quake that sent two steeples of the Münster Cathedral tumbling into the Rhine.

Hastily shut down, Mr. Häring’s project was soon forgotten by nearly everyone outside Switzerland. As early as this week, though, an American start-up company, AltaRock Energy*, will begin using nearly the same method to drill deep into ground laced with fault lines in an area two hours’ drive north of San Francisco.

The New York Times article goes into a lot of detail about why the deeper geothermal techniques cause earthquakes, but it also gives a good overview of the geothermal potential. I think the solution to this – if they can’t come up with techniques that don’t spawn earthquakes – is to only tap geothermal in relatively uninhabited locations. There are lots of places in the Western United States that have very low population densities, but very high geothermal potential.

Regardless, geothermal is one of those options that I think is around for the long haul, and won’t require endless subsidies in order to be competitive.

* As a footnote, AltaRock Energy is a company that Vinod Khosla has invested in. AltaRock also has some information at their site about how geothermal works.

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June 27, 2009 - Posted by | AltaRock, electricity, geothermal, Vinod Khosla

50 Comments

  1. "The only problem is that this sort of deep drilling can cause earthquakes."No, that's not the only problem. Far from it. But you knew that, Robert.One big problem with going deep is heat losses in bringing the hot liquid to the surface. The oil industry has found the hard way that it is just about impossible economically the send steam down more than about 4,000 ft. Wells are simply very long heat exchangers.Another big problem is the high salinity of deep hot waters. Scaling and solids deposition in the tubing as the hot fluid moves towards the surface, cooling as it goes.You are absolutely right, Robert, that every serious energy source has its downsides. You are also right that there is a place for geothermal in favored locations.But geothermal is not the answer for a world that will need 100 TeraWatts of power.

    Comment by Kinuachdrach | June 27, 2009

  2. Geothermal energy is one of the LEAST promising renewable energy technologies. There are a FEW number of commercial geothermal plants already in LIMITED operation (the U.S. is the world leader in geothermal energy), and the economics are much more favorable than some of the other choices (DUH!). Geothermal electricity makes a much larger contribution to the electricity mix than does INCREDIBLY INSIGNIFICANT solar power, and does not suffer from the intermittency issue.Regardless, geothermal is one of those options that I think is around for the long haul, BUT WILL require endless subsidies in order to be competitive EXCEPT MAYBE ICELAND.

    Comment by Kit P | June 28, 2009

  3. Generating electricity seems not to be a problem. We have natural gas, we have coal, we have nukes, and we can build solar and wind. I would say the generating electricity problem is well-licked, and I don't see any doom scenarios, nor am I particularly concerned if one or two technologies –geothermal– fall by the wayside.Meanwhile, advancements in building design will mean buildings will start using less electricity and not more, in the future. As we all know, where there is a challenge in fuels for transportation. I contend the PHEV and CNG pretty well lick this problem, which is only a problem as most of the world's oil is controlled by thug states.

    Comment by Benjamin | June 28, 2009

  4. Ben,"Generating electricity seems not to be a problem."I agree. There need not be any doom scenario. The only doom scenario is continued reliance on gasoline dependence fostered by OPEC, the American oil lobby and entrenched interests promoting the internal combustion engine.Robert just doesn't understand why the general public hates the oil companies. It's simple. The oil companies could care less where they get their crude, whether from enemies or friends. Oil companies are completely "amoral" like all good capitalists and exist simply to make money according to the idealized "free market" model.Ever hear of any oil company running a series of TV spots saying "We refuse to import crude oil from thug states and avowed enemies."The answer is " NO", And you will NEVER hear this from the oil exploration and refining companies.They could care less…. …..and I could care less about them maintaining their pre-eminent position in the energy markets.John

    Comment by Anonymous | June 28, 2009

  5. I gotta say John, I disagree. I think people hate oil companies because they think they're being ripped off: they expect low prices regardless of the economics or the geopolitics, and when their foolish expectations aren't met, they assume corruption. I'm highly doubtful that if those corporations stopped buying oil from despotic regimes, and watched the price dramatically increase, they would score a PR win.Mike

    Comment by Anonymous | June 28, 2009

  6. Regardless, geothermal is one of those options that I think is around for the long haul, and won't require endless subsidies in order to be competitive.I agree that it is around for the long haul. You also point to the key: it has regional constraints. This will always be true for geothermal. Ubiquity is an attribute that is possible for very few renewable energy sources. Solar energy is one of these few.Solar has long been economically competitive in regions where the sun shines with regularity. It requires subsidies in such locales only because competing energy sources are so heavily subsidized.Intermittency is an issue only at scales that approach the scale of traditional – and often toxic – base-load fuels. A grid designed from a new paradigm could easily ameliorate this problem.Our thinking is ossified.

    Comment by Rate Crimes | June 28, 2009

  7. I gotta say John, I disagree.I think people hate oil companies because they think they're being ripped off: they expect low prices regardless of the economics or the geopolitics, and when their foolish expectations aren't met, they assume corruption. I'm highly doubtful that if those corporations stopped buying oil from despotic regimes, and watched the price dramatically increase, they would score a PR win.Mike—–Yes, it is a symbiotic and sometimes duplicitous relationship between the consumers and the the oil companies.In the final analysis we are addicted to oil because we are addicted to our "automobile" lifestyle and the to gasoline and the internal combustion engine which has sustained it.Ben Cole has suggested CNG as an alternative fuel. We have substantial natural gas, and that's fine. There is also the possibility of a bio-fuel breakthrough.Personally, I think we will ultimately abandon the inefficient internal combustion engine in favor of the highly efficient, low maintenance and quiet electric motor.I also agree with Mr. Cole that we have relatively few "national security" worries concerning the electric grid. The main problem for America as a nation seems to be with the transportation fuels.Americans are spoiled, I agree. For an oil company to declare that it would no longer purchase crude from Chavez might be a PR disaster, On the other hand it might be a Public Relations Triumph.Either way, the oil companies are not going to do any such thing because they are too busy making money.By no stretch of the imagination can anyone accuse the oil companies as being "patriotic"John

    Comment by Anonymous | June 28, 2009

  8. What has gone wrong with the world?First our normally sensible host goes dewy-eyed about geothermal expanding out of its niche.Then John fulminates about "entrenched interests promoting the internal combustion engine". John — that entrenched interest is called the human race, which probably includes you.Next, RateCrimes reminds us that "Solar has long been economically competitive" — Yeah, on the Planet Zork.Guys, I know everyone is shattered by the death of Michael Jackson, but let's pull ourselves together!

    Comment by Kinuachdrach | June 28, 2009

  9. An oil company was drilling a well the other day and it caused an earthquake.It's always something,If it's not the Exxon Valdez, then it's the Santa Barbara oil spill.It's always something…

    Comment by Anonymous | June 28, 2009

  10. Next, RateCrimes reminds us that "Solar has long been economically competitive" — Yeah, on the Planet Zork.=================================Next time you turn on your satellite TV, use GPS, or get on the internet, just get down on your knees and Thank God for Solar Cells. And remember the Hubble telescope while you're at it.Just what planet do YOU live on ? John

    Comment by Anonymous | June 28, 2009

  11. "No, that's not the only problem. Far from it. But you knew that, Robert."You are taking that too literally. As you know, "the only problem" is a common phrase which doesn't literally mean "the only problem." Of course in addition to some of the negative side-effects – which is what I am referring to – is that fact that there are various technical challenges with any of these choices.RR

    Comment by Robert Rapier | June 28, 2009

  12. Kit writes "Geothermal energy is one of the LEAST promising renewable energy technologies."That's cute, Kit, but doesn't add anything to the discussion. Perhaps Kit would like to tell us what some of his MOST promising renewable energy technologies are then? Geothermal is highly promising because it is already competitive – without subsidies – in many locations where the heat is close to the surface. One reason is because the capacity factor for geothermal is very high. The cost to produce geothermal in locations with good surface heat is in the $0.05 kWh range, which is quite competitive in my book. "BUT WILL require endless subsidies in order to be competitive EXCEPT MAYBE ICELAND."The plants that are operating now don't require subsidies in order to be competitive. In fact, there was an article in Scientific American back in March that analyzed the cost per kWh of a number of technologies for producing electricity (solar, wind, coal, nuclear, etc.) and geothermal was the cheapest. Capital costs for the plants are high, but then you aren't paying ongoing costs for the fuel. RR

    Comment by Robert Rapier | June 28, 2009

  13. "Robert just doesn't understand why the general public hates the oil companies."You are wrong about that, John. I understand very well why the general public hates oil companies. I also understand why in Europe the general public does not hate oil companies. The politicians don't push that theme in Europe. "The oil companies could care less where they get their crude, whether from enemies or friends."You are crazy if you think oil companies wouldn't prefer to get their crude from domestic/friendly sources. Oil companies are also oil producers, and they would love to have a large domestic supply to develop." Ever hear of any oil company running a series of TV spots saying "We refuse to import crude oil from thug states and avowed enemies." "Such an idealistic oil company would soon go out of business. Not because they could care less, but because they understand that there isn't enough supply otherwise.But John, you certainly did a nice job of validating the reason that the public hates oil companies. They hate oil companies because they really don't understand much about oil companies, and they allow their views to be framed by politicians (who also don't understand much about oil companies).RR

    Comment by Robert Rapier | June 28, 2009

  14. You know, I find it very hard to believe that deep drilling causes earthquakes. Triggers them a little early maybe, but that might be a befit. Would you really want the forces at work to build up enough force that they would trigger "naturally"?

    Comment by Ape Man | June 28, 2009

  15. "Next time you turn on your satellite TV, use GPS, or get on the internet, just get down on your knees and Thank God for Solar Cells. And remember the Hubble telescope while you're at it."I live happily without satellite TV & GPS, and the internet backbone runs primarily on fiber optics without solar input.But I could tell you how much solar power was used in manufacturing those TV & GPS satellites, and in putting them into orbit. But you know the answer to that already.To come back to our host's post — of course there are niches where geothermal or solar or wood are feasible & appropriate. The problem is not the niches. The problem is the 15,000,000,000,000 Watts of power we (including you) humans are using right now — and the very much larger amount we need to use if we are to bring all of our fellow human beings up to a decent standard of living.

    Comment by Kinuachdrach | June 28, 2009

  16. I was recently wondering if the earthquake-drilling connection was widely accepted. It appears it is. The Times link is a nicely detailed article. Thanks.interesting how Alta-Rock is doing this just outside of SF. Perhaps the belief is that Google can do no wrong. I do believe this is one of the more promising alt energy sources. I believe some companies are doing this with a captive solution with a lower boiling point in a heat exchanger environment and are less dependent on steam.(Raser technologies (?) perhaps) Thanks Jim Takchess

    Comment by Anonymous | June 28, 2009

  17. The biggest issue with deep geothermal is that the drills get stuck or break.The rock in many cases is fractured, which is different from the traditional oil-bearing rock that has a solid structure.Japan, which is not Iceland but certainly has lots of hot rocks, is spending a lot on improving drilling technology before it is able to tap its geothermal resources for a large amount of its power. I cannot find a reference from the Japanese government anymore but basically they said that this is the limiting factor that most needs to be solved.Then there is this: http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20670001&refer=home&sid=an9adcTnOGuo

    Comment by Anonymous | June 28, 2009

  18. KInu-Here is the word from CleanEnergyFuels,,$750k to add NG to a gasoline stations (!) Seems like a ton of money to me.The NG pumps dispense at "10 gallons per minute." I don't know what that means.Maybe they can figure out how to bring that 750k fig down. To put an above-ground tank on a parking lot, and some pipes to a pump? I bet in Thailand they do it for $30k.

    Comment by Benjamin | June 28, 2009

  19. Two hours north of SF is pretty far. As the NYT article says, The Geysers already have a thousand earthquakes a year, or typically, several every day from the current geothermal plants there. They are of around magnitude 1 or 2, which can not be felt as far away as San Francisco. So SF is pretty blasé about them. http://quake.wr.usgs.gov/recenteqs/Maps/SF_Bay.htmlPrevious reports have suggested that geothermal doesn't cause larger earthquakes than naturally occurs in a location, but can make them happen sooner. I can understand why Basel, which had cathedrals damaged by quakes 650 years ago would rather not have another one that large any time soon.I think most people in SF are not concerned about the possibility of more quakes 2 hours north, but I wouldn't put is past a handful of enviro-freaks to stop the project, especially now after the NYT article.

    Comment by Clee | June 28, 2009

  20. Clee said:"but I wouldn't put is past a handful of enviro-freaks to stop the project, especially now after the NYT article.I have also been wondering this. Just what do these people expect us to do for energy ? (which they also use)Yjey are against windmills because they chop up birds. They are against solar because it might screw up the scenery in the Mojave Desert. They are against geo-thermal because it might "trigger the big quake"They are against using wood because it will deplete the forest ecosystem.Etc.The primativists are "against" just about everything.I find it amusing that two former eco-nuts now support nuclear power namely Patrick Moore, founder of Greenpeace and James Lovelace who authored the theory that the earth "a just some kind of gigantic organism"The problems facing geo-thermal are not un-like the challenges facing any other technology, including the oil biz.Oil companies didn't always do horizontal drillingJohn

    Comment by Anonymous | June 28, 2009

  21. Robert,I admire the technological and practical contribution the oil industry has made. I disagree with their business philosophy.All my relatives in Houston have worked for oil companies. One of my brother-in-laws is a chemical engineer. Another is an industrial engineer who worked in Dubai designing refinery piping. A third worked for Petrotex. Two of my better friends from the Houston area a;so worked for oil companies, one for Lubrizol and another for Ashland Oil. My father-in-law was foreman in Standards and Testing for ARCO (Lyondel).I have listened to endless conversations about conflicts between the Petroleum and Atomic Workers Union and management.I live smack dab in the middle of "fossil fuel heaven", half way between Bryan-College Station and Waco. We sit on tons of natural gas, oil and coal. When I start talking about "electric cars", my friends all look at me like I'm nuts.My comments are not a prejudice against fossil fuels. There are other issues involved.As a foot-note, I don't like the way Bill Gates does business either.John

    Comment by Anonymous | June 29, 2009

  22. I think geothermal is a good way to make electricity and I am not trying to be cute as RR suggests. The point I was trying to make is that RR was wrong about everything he wrote on geothermal. RR gets his info from the NYT and Scientific American. RR demonstrates about zero understand of the electric industry. “Geothermal is highly promising because it is already competitive – without subsidies – in many locations where the heat is close to the surface.”Close but inaccurate. Geothermal is somewhat promising in locations where renewable energy is mandated. Zero is the number of geothermal steam electric plants that were getting built without incentives. Clearly biomass is the most promising steam electric plants. Past, present, and future. Like all steam plants, they have high capital costs. The size of wood plants depends on amount of wood that can be economically transported with 50 MWe being a large plant.LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATIONCost is important but only in the context of location. So what would be cheaper in California, nukes or geothermal steam electric plants? It does not matter because both are cheaper than NG. However, the potential for geothermal steam electric plants in California is less than one new nuke plant. The same is true for wood steam electric plants. “geothermal was the cheapest”This is an example of simplistic thinking. Utilities think about the certainty of providing for huge demand that varies from time of day and time of year. I doubt RR source has a clue. There is a long list of sources predicting the cost of making electricity. They have something in common. They never have built or operated a power plant.

    Comment by Kit P | June 29, 2009

  23. i misread this thinking that SF was alot closer.

    Comment by takchess | June 29, 2009

  24. "Here is the word from CleanEnergyFuels,,$750k to add NG to a gasoline stations (!) Seems like a ton of money to me."Seems that way to me too! But to be able to fill vehicles at 10 gallons a minute, they need to have a large volume of high pressure compressed gas stored on site. And a big compressor (electric driven?) to fill those storage cylinders. Not cheap.Then there are the maintenance requirements. Without adequate maintenance, high pressure gas systems can leak dangerously, and compressors can disintegrate. In the mid-1980s, a compressor leak destroyed the Piper Alpha platform in the North Sea — and that platform was a lot more heavily built than the average corner gas station.This is not an argument against Natural Gas Vehicles. Simply another example of Rapier's Law that there is always something. There are trade-offs with any large scale energy source.Of course, the worst trade-off would be not having enough energy.

    Comment by Kinuachdrach | June 29, 2009

  25. NG POV fueling is like asking me what I would do if I was skydiving and my shoot did not open. My answer to such hypothetical question is to not answer them. Worrying about how to fuel a NG POV is stupid. Not too many in the US are dumb enough to buy them

    Comment by Kit P | June 29, 2009

  26. Robert,I'm with you that Geothermal will be a bigger player sooner rather than later. I like many others am carefully watching the boys in Cooper Basin. If it can't be done there at large scale, cost effectively, and with high efficiency, then it can't be done anywhere.How many 4km holes do you need for 1GW? A 4km hole is dirt cheap compared to a 1GW nuke plant!SamG

    Comment by SamG | June 29, 2009

  27. “A 4km hole is dirt cheap compared to a 1GW nuke plant!”The steam electric plants and associated equipment cost the same no matter what the energy source. We do nuke know how many reactors will be needed. That would be one. It is interesting that SamG know the cost of something that is hypothetical.

    Comment by Kit P | June 29, 2009

  28. Kinu-I have a compressor in my shop. 80-gallon, and a five horse motor. The tank at the gasoline station at Olympic and La Cienega is huge, and I imagine it uses a very large electric motor compressor. My guess is that it could fill up 12 cars an hour w/o problem, although I am blowing smoke through my rear end. I have no idea, but just sort of eyeballing, and knowing what my little compressor can do. I agree with you on the lack of leadership in America. I am not impressed with Obama's energy plan, if he even has a plan. I was not impressed with Bush's push into ethanol. Clinton had the luxury of low oil prices, so he did not have a plan. Of course, letting the free market do its thing is a good plan, but we don't do that either. Given that a single station costs $750k to trick out for NG, I guess the first use of NG will be fleets. CLNE needs to cut that price of installing NG at a station in half. Jeez, how many cars would they have to serve every day to make money? For sake of argument, if they net $10 per car after all operating, real depreciation and maintenance costs, they would need to serve 7,500 cars a year to barely justify the capital costs of installation, or more than 20 cars a day. Well, that's not impossible, but it ain't going to happen in that location for years and years. The ol' chicken-and-egg problem.

    Comment by Benjamin | June 29, 2009

  29. RR said,"But John, you certainly did a nice job of validating the reason that the public hates oil companies. They hate oil companies because they really don't understand much about oil companies, and they allow their views to be framed by politicians (who also don't understand much about oil companies).————————————Response:Sorry Robert, but I'm afraid this time the politicians are right.That's why we have government, It is in part to protect us from corporations.I suppose Teddy Roosevelt just "didn't understand the oil companies" when he busted Standard Oil.On the contrary, I think he absolutely understood the oil companies. (i.e. The lone monopoly player — Standard Oil)By the way, that was only the first reason why the general public hates oil companies.John

    Comment by Anonymous | June 29, 2009

  30. Scania is selling E95 Buses in Europe that attain 43% engine efficiency (Their Diesel engines are 44% efficiency.)Scania E95 Buses.Question for Robert: Can you, through your connections in Europe, find out what the fuel usage/mi is compared to the diesel buses?I'm assuming that, because of the large difference in btu/gal that the difference will be substantial, but, of diesels I know squat.Any ideas?

    Comment by rufus | June 29, 2009

  31. "The point I was trying to make is that RR was wrong about everything he wrote on geothermal."Kit, I am going to give you the benefit of the doubt and presume you meant: "The point I was trying to make is NOT that RR was wrong about everything he wrote on geothermal."I have to presume that is what you meant since you wrote very little that disagreed with my post. Now, in case that isn’t want you meant, I have warned you enough times about your posting behavior. The next post that has a gratuitous insult is gone. Poof.“RR gets his info from the NYT and Scientific American.”Whereas Kit thinks it is a strength to just make things up and never source them. Of course then you end up being wrong all the time. For example:"Geothermal is somewhat promising in locations where renewable energy is mandated. Zero is the number of geothermal steam electric plants that were getting built without incentives."Kit wants us to believe he is some sort of electricity expert, yet writes completely inaccurate comments like this. Sorry, Kit. You are flat wrong. The first geothermal plant in the U.S. for electricity predates any geothermal subsidies by decades. If you want to dispute, please give us a history of geothermal subsidies. Sourced.And I should probably once again remind you to argue against what I write, and not what you wish I had written. I wrote "Geothermal energy is one of the most promising renewable energy technologies." Geothermal was used for heating in the U.S. since the 1800's, again without subsidies. So if you want to continue your posting privileges here, learn to argue coherently, and if you are going to say I am wrong make sure you are actually arguing against what I wrote."Clearly biomass is the most promising steam electric plants. Past, present, and future."Again, Kit, you are not contradicting me. You have been around long enough to know that I like biomass a lot for electricity production. Once again, look at what I wrote and look at what you wrote. You said geothermal was one of the LEAST promising. I think you know you were wrong, but you were just trying to be cute. But if you really think it is one of the LEAST promising, what I would like to see is a list of more promising technologies. Listing something that I am on the record as being in favor of (and in fact am actually working on) isn't what I am talking about."Cost is important but only in the context of location."Once again, I pointed this out. So you appear to agree with everything I wrote, while protesting that I don't know what I am talking about."This is an example of simplistic thinking."Who wants to bet that Kit didn't look into the matter at all (read the source/references) and is therefore jumping to conclusions?"They never have built or operated a power plant."I must conclude – based on some of your writings – neither have you.RR

    Comment by Robert Rapier | June 29, 2009

  32. "Question for Robert: Can you, through your connections in Europe, find out what the fuel usage/mi is compared to the diesel buses?"I have actually tried to contact Scania twice without success. I wanted to know exactly what you asked about. So, I still don't know.RR

    Comment by Robert Rapier | June 29, 2009

  33. “Sorry Robert, but I'm afraid this time the politicians are right.”No, politicians – with few exceptions – are clueless about energy. When Ed Rendell drives his SUV two blocks to make a staged appearance at a gas station and rails about how oil companies are ripping people off – he is demonstrating the typical ignorance of oil companies. He doesn’t understand that the prices are being driven by supply and demand; that U.S. oil companies are price takers, not price makers. The reason prices are high is because people like Ed Rendell can’t walk two blocks. But then prices rise, and we rush out a lot of punitive taxes – which serves primarily to increase the competitiveness of overseas operators. “I suppose Teddy Roosevelt just "didn't understand the oil companies" when he busted Standard Oil.”We aren’t in Teddy Roosevelt’s time. U.S. companies don’t enjoy anything remotely resembling a monopoly – but the public still believes this.No, the main reason people hate the oil companies is that politicians jump up and grandstand every time prices go up. They hate oil companies because our politicians have given them the impression that cheap fuel forever is a birth right. But they don’t behave this way in Europe, and not coincidentally the public doesn’t hate oil companies here.RR

    Comment by Robert Rapier | June 29, 2009

  34. When I lived in silicon valley we had a thousand earthquakes a year if you count richter 1 and 2 as earthquakes. Geothermal wells are drilled in fault laced ground because that's where the heat is. I don't believe the NYT. Now if you can source a peer reviewed paper by a geologist maybe we'd have something.

    Comment by robert | June 29, 2009

  35. Ape Man @ June 28, 7:44 AM,Dave Summers, who I have disagreement with on other topics, nailed the point you raise in his blog.Discucussing the hydro-fracturing that triggers quakes he points out, ”Now in almost all cases the stresses would have continued to build until an earthquake finally occurred. And at that point the energy released by the quake would be greater than that released by the geothermal operation (since the stress levels would be higher at that time, and the failure would be more violent). But it is hard to get that concept over to the public.Basically they see that the geothermal well was drilled, and an earthquake resulted. That it ameliorated a worsening potential earthquake is something that is not easily recognized, especially since the smaller quake can still cause damage…”http://bittooth.blogspot.com/2009/06/geothermal-energy-and-earthquakes.htmlGiven the propensity for tort actions, reporting practices in the “news” market, and political pandering in the US, this poses serious problems, I’d think.Of course, other hydrocarbon fuels (Benny’s gas shale extraction and much petroleum production for instance) are dependant on the same methods, but almost always in less seismically active areas.My added concern is how well the sustained heat extraction can be determined before the rather expensive drilling and down hole work has been done. I’ve seen what appear to be creditable claims that extraction rates should decline over time. Can the cost of heat production be accurately enough quantified to make the investment?Jim Takchess @ June 28-9:43 AM,Thanks for reminding others about what posted here some months ago. It’s still rather experimental as far as I know, but I’d think this one holds much promise. By using lower temperature sources, the area available for exploitation is hugely expanded. It also seems to avoid the problem the Japanese have identified that’s brought up in the post following yours. The projects I’m familiar with use “off the shelf” commercial air conditioning components. I’m at a bit of a loss to understand why this isn’t attracting any “buzz”.Clee @ June 28 – 3:00 PMThe spire collapses were over 300 miles to the north of Basel, at Münster. How many masonry churchs are we building today using the methods of a cathedral consecrated in 1019?WhiteBeard

    Comment by Anonymous | June 29, 2009

  36. "The spire collapses were over 300 miles to the north of Basel, at Münster."300 miles away? Did I have the same misunderstanding that takchess had about The Geysers and SF? And yet wikipedia and everywhere else I look on the internet tells me the Munster Cathedral is in Basel.http://www.basel.com/en.cfm/sightseeing/offer-SightseeingAusfluegeBT-Sightseeing-153966.htmlIt is estimated that the 1356 Basel earthquake was magnitude 6 or 7.http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/122363284/abstractThe Loma Prieta earthquake near SF in 1989 was of similar magnitude and caused the collapse of the Cypress Viaduct on the Nimitz Freeway, 63 deaths, thousands of injuries and billions of dollars in property damage. I think it's irrelevant how many masonry churchs we are building today using the methods of a cathedral consecrated in 1019. I think it's a good idea to keep deep geothermal wells away from fault lines running through populated areas with histories of magnitude 6 and higher earthquakes. "if you can source a peer reviewed paper by a geologist maybe we'd have something."Looks like someone's been keeping track of just such papers, with an interesting "Warning to non-scientists"http://www.darlenecypser.com/induceq/induceq.html

    Comment by Clee | June 29, 2009

  37. Won't the lawyers have fun after a severe earthquake hits an area that has recently started using geothermal power?

    Comment by Wendell Mercantile | June 29, 2009

  38. clee @ June 29 – 5:17 AMYou’re correct and I’m wrong on the 1356 quake location. I seem to have confused the browser tabs I was reading. Should have stopped for a moment and though about the geologic stability of northern Germany compared to the edge of the western Alps, and remembered that the city, Münster, is a long way from the Rhine.Given that hydro-fracturing only provides an early trigger for the release of stress that will sooner or later produce a quake, what is the problem? Do you think Summer’s observation that the quakes are thus less intense is wrong? I see it as very similar to deliberately initiating avalanches.Having been in the heavy damage zone while a magnitude 9 (+/- depending on your source, but definitely “The Big One”) quake was occurring less than a year before, my reaction on first seeing that viaduct on the Nimitz was amazement. Watching a sine wave of about 18 inches amplitude propagate through the earth’s surface had a powerful effect on me. That it wouldn’t take much horizontal earth movement to bring down the upper deck was clear to an 18 year old.WhiteBeard

    Comment by Anonymous | June 29, 2009

  39. One of the points Robert brought up about geothermal I believe gets overlooked – the fact that it is intermittent. There are efforts in smart grid and heat storage systems that may mitigate these problems, but the reality is it is easier and more profitable to finance a consistent, reliable energy production source than an intermittent one. The economics are MUCH more favorable.One of the challenges with these energy debates is that is spans many disciplines: project finance, environment, politics/regulations, geology, semiconductors, power inverters, grid capacities, deep drilling, utilities, ISO, RPS, etc.Its difficult to find a single person who is familiar with all of these issues, let alone a group of people.Kit – Biomass is not clearly the most favorable steam plant. There are pro's and con's. I suggest you read the NETL/CEC paper on the subject. I'm a big proponent of biomass gasification plants but there are fundamental issues with biomass to electricity. Please provide references in the future for the claims you make.http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy00osti/26946.pdf

    Comment by westside | June 29, 2009

  40. WhiteBeard,I tend to believe that Dave Summer is right about about the induced quakes being less intense, but I also believe what the NYT said about "Seismologists have long known that human activities can trigger quakes, but they say the science is not developed enough to say for certain what will or will not set off a major temblor."Looking at AltaRock's response to the NYT article, I find the first two bullet items interesting. AltaRock chose to drill in an area with small faults unconnected to larger faults, and not connected to "locked" faults. I think the implication is that if you relieve stress on a small fault connected to a larger locked fault, you increase the stress on the locked fault, and the chances of a big quake.I tend to believe that it is similar to deliberately initiating avalanches. However, the avalanches aren't triggered while people are still on targeted mountainside. Hence my comment about populated places.Westside, Did you mean to write that geothermal is not intermittent? If you really did mean to write that it is intermittent, please give some information supporting that claim. Thanks.

    Comment by Clee | June 29, 2009

  41. Oops, I left out the URL of AltaRock's response.http://www.altarockenergy.com/nyt.html

    Comment by Clee | June 29, 2009

  42. "How many 4km holes do you need for 1GW?"How long is a piece of string?The issue is the limiting Carnot efficiency — essentially, the closer the temperatures of the heat engine's inlet & outlet, the lower the efficiency of conversion of heat to useful power."4 km" is only about 13,000 feet — much shallower than the 30,000 feet wells sometimes seen in oil & gas drilling. But 13,000 feet of metal pipe is a modestly efficient heat exchanger.Bottom hole, start off with some very hot superheated liquid. By the time it has passed up that long heat exchanger, its temperature at the surface at the input to the heat engine will be quite low (depending, of course, on local factors). The energy conversion process will therefore be inefficient It could take a lot of "4 km" holes all producing a rather nasty chemical brew to get to 1 GW. And remember, the world needs TeraWatts, not GigaWatts.So geothermal will remain an interesting niche source in areas which are geologically suitable.I hate having to belabor this point, but unscientific enthusiasts seem to have difficulty grasping the obvious.

    Comment by Kinuachdrach | June 30, 2009

  43. @CleeThank you for the correction! Geothermal is NOT intermittent is what i meant to say.

    Comment by westside | June 30, 2009

  44. Any lessons to be learned about the geothermal earthquake problem from the earthquakes associated with drilling for natural gas in the Barnett Shale formation in Texas? Barnett Shale Earthquakes

    Comment by Wendell Mercantile | June 30, 2009

  45. Rate Crimes:"Solar has long been economically competitive in regions where the sun shines with regularity. It requires subsidies in such locales only because competing energy sources are so heavily subsidized."Wrong! EIA study here, article summarizing the bottom line here."An even better way to tell the story is by how much taxpayer money is dispensed per unit of energy, so the costs are standardized. For electricity generation, the EIA concludes that solar energy is subsidized to the tune of $24.34 per megawatt hour, wind $23.37 and "clean coal" $29.81. By contrast, normal coal receives 44 cents, natural gas a mere quarter, hydroelectric about 67 cents and nuclear power $1.59."And if you think intermittency is an issue only at large scales, try running your house off of wind or solar, without being connected to the grid.

    Comment by LarryD | June 30, 2009

  46. Thanks for that link to the EIA study. I've been wanting to see such an analysis.

    Comment by Clee | June 30, 2009

  47. Enough is enough, Kit. You have been warning enough times; your post was deleted. Think long and hard before you post again, because I will have a very low tolerance from you going forward. In the future if I feel compelled to answer one of your posts simply because it is insulting, I am just going to delete it. And if you ever ask someone for references again I am going to delete your post unless you start providing references of your own.RR

    Comment by Robert Rapier | July 1, 2009

  48. Kinuachdrach,In the US I'd settle for 1 or 2 TeraWatts…..As for Carnot, I like him but he doesn't do much work.Well head temperatures have been reported at Cooper Basin over 200C. That's not much of a loss compared to the bottom hole temperatuer. Although the efficiency won't be great, you CAN run a cycle off that deltaT.It will be interesting to see if the people who are actually putting their skin in the geothermal game are succesful. Instead of poking barbs at them, I'll be cheering.

    Comment by SamG | July 2, 2009

  49. Kinuachdrach==But geothermal is not the answer for a world that will need 100 TeraWatts of power.==What are you talking about?http://greyfalcon.net/geoenergy.png

    Comment by GreyFlcn | July 4, 2009

  50. re: LarryDWhy is it relevant to compare over a half centuries worth of constructed capacity, to one year's worth of subsidies?(Unless of course you're intetionally trying to be dishonest?)That exact methodology of that "report" was specifically requested by Republican Senator Lamar Alexander.http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/servicerpt/subsidy2/pdf/appenh.pdfThe same guy who just the other week was calling for roughly 56 billion dollars worth of new money-back loan guaruntees.For another 12 nuclear power plants.http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/wire/sns-ap-us-alexander-nuclear-power,1,6445886.storyIt's rather pathetic when if the only way you can back up your argument is if you essentially lie about it.

    Comment by GreyFlcn | July 4, 2009


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