West Virginia Said to Be Considering a Geothermal Energy Future

A Google-funded study, which found enormous geothermal potential in West Virginia, is reinivogorating the push to develop the resource in the coal state

Geothermal power plant
Image: Gavin McFarlane

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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

Geothermal plants have been producing electricity in the U.S. since the 1960s, but almost all are in the West. Conventional technology is best suited for areas where high rock temperatures are accessible at relatively shallow depths, where reservoirs within porous rock are pumped to bring hot water up to electricity-generating turbines.

Seven western states plus Hawaii and Alaska have nearly 3,100 megawatts of installed geothermal capacity, about three-fourths of which comes from California, according to data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

Of the six additional states with plans to drill geothermal wells, the easternmost is Mississippi.

West Virginia’s abundant resource is cooler, drier and deeper than those of its Western counterparts, creating a bigger technical obstacle to utility-scale geothermal generation.

Using a $1.2 million DOE grant, Anderson is leading a team of researchers from NREL, Cornell University and Iowa State University to develop an enhanced geothermal system (EGS), a new process for extracting energy in areas without natural hot springs or geysers. 

The technology drills wellls deep into the earth, injects water or liquid biomass into hot dry rocks through artificial fractures and pumps the fluids back up to the surface.

A similar hydraulic fracturing method used for natural gas drilling, known as “fracking,” has raised concerns of surface water pollution on the Marcellus Shale formations in West Virginia, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, although the impact of EGS fracturing has yet to be determined.

Concerns of possible seismic activity, however, have delayed similar projects out West, including the $17 million AltaRock Energy drilling project in Northern California. The project was suspended indefinitely in September 2009 not long after earthquakes occurred in an EGS project in Basel, Switzerland.

AltaRock has since resumed activity on an existing geothermal well pad in central Oregon.

Case Study: Heating Up WVU’s Campus

Anderson said that his team is considering WVU’s Morgantown campus as the site of a case study to demonstrate the economic viability of geothermal heating and power. With 29,300 students, plus faculty and staff, the campus is virtually a small town.

After working with Hohn to find the highest geothermal temperatures at the lowest depths, the researchers will then tap into the university’s centralized steam distribution system for heating.

The case study will also explore how steam created from EGS could generate electricity by driving turbines. Central heating is likely to be the cheaper option, though, simply because steam goes directly into the pipeline, eliminating some of the extra processes involved in making electricity.

“Right now, the heat [on campus] comes from steam generated by a coal-burning power plant,” Anderson said. “If we save one ton of coal from being burned that would’ve been burned to heat the campus, that’s the same as saving one ton of coal from electricity.”

WVU’s campus will also help the researchers skirt a potentially sticky legal situation that could arise as geothermal develops: drilling rights. That’s because the university owns the rights to all surface and underground resources within campus boundaries.

At most other sites, things could get messy, Anderson warned. For example, how do you divvy up an underground resource that’s already been permitted for other purposes?

“Geothermal falls in the cracks where you might be drilling for water,” he said, “but it also might be well below the water table and below oil and gas [tables]” and already owned by developers in those respective industries.