Coal-dependent West Virginia could become the first state outside of the American West to tap its geothermal resources to generate energy, according to researchers ramping up their work on hot-rock mining.
State geologist Michael Hohn and Brian Anderson, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at West Virginia University (WVU), are leading the reinvigorated charge to "mine" the state's renewable energy resource after a landmark study last year found subterranean temperatures to be significantly higher than once thought.
"Within the next ten years, there could be a demonstration-type project in West Virginia to show that geothermal utilization could be successful," Anderson told SolveClimate News, adding that additional projects could pop up within 15 years.
Geothermal energy in West Virginia is currently used for small-scale heating systems, but only at residential and commercial levels.
Hohn, who directs the state's Geological and Economic Survey, said that just a few years ago geothermal was barely on the government's radar screen. Initiatives to explore the resource were sidelined by oil, natural gas and coal projects, the state's economic bread and butter.
West Virginia is the nation's second-largest coal producing state behind Wyoming. It exports 80 percent of its coal and half of its natural gas to Eastern and Midwestern states, as well as globally, making it the second-highest net exporter of electricity nationwide behind Pennsylvania.
Things changed on the geothermal front in October 2010, when an analysis by the Dallas-based Geothermal Laboratory, part of Southern Methodist University (SMU), challenged past research on reserves.
Earlier studies, including a 2006 report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that Anderson co-authored, gave the state little reason to pursue the resource after finding weak potential in West Virginia, Hohn said.
75% More Reserves than MIT Estimate
Funded by grants from Google.org, the Geothermal Laboratory found the state's geothermal generation potential to be at 18,890 megawatts, a 75 percent rise from MIT's earlier estimates.
That figure is more than West Virginia's total current generating capacity of 16,350 megawatts — almost all of which comes from coal-fired plants, the report says.
State officials have since expressed a heightened interest in exploring the renewable resource as an addition to West Virginia's energy export industry. Still, no one expects geothermal power to compete with cheaper coal-fired electricity — even as fossil fuel prices tick up.
In 2009, average electricity prices in West Virginia increased 18 percent, compared with 1.5 percent nationally, as coal generation fell by 24 percent, according to the Washington-based Institute for Energy Research.
Last year, however, electricity rates in the state fell by 2.5 percent, due mostly in part to a rate reduction for natural gas, said state regulators.
West Virginia does have a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) that requires investor-owned utilities to generate 25 percent of retail electricity sales from alternative and renewable energy sources by 2025. But that percentage almost exclusively targets so-called clean coal technologies, though observers say it could make way for geothermal energy as well.
If Only It Was Cost-Effective...
"We are an energy state," said Jeff Herholdt, director of the division of energy at the West Virginia Department of Commerce. "There are a lot of people interested in determining what kind of a resource opportunity [geothermal] really is."
"If it was cost-effective to produce electricity from geothermal, then we would already have infrastructure in place to capitalize on that resource," he said on future production.
The energy division has recently given about $30,000 to Marshall University in Huntington for an economic impact study on geothermal energy, plus $40,000 to Hohn's agency to update the state geographic information system (GIS).
Hohn also received $139,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in early 2010 for a three-year fact-finding initiative to collect data on the types, temperatures and depths of rocks to analyze potential sites for geothermal drilling.
The project is part of $338 million in stimulus funding from the DOE to support geothermal energy research nationwide — a program that has also advanced Anderson's work on developing technologies for West Virginia's challenging geothermal climate.
Hohn said: "This is a very new and relatively young field, even though there have been people at it for decades."
Geothermal Plants Mostly in the West