Maria Richards and David BlackwellMaria Richards, coordinator of SMU’s Geothermal Lab, was among the industry leaders and experts presenting a Geothermal Showcase at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., on May 6.

Participants virtually visited some of the leading geothermal energy development projects in the United States and heard from companies at the forefront of geothermal power growth. A panel of leading geothermal scientists discussed how geothermal resources can contribute to the world’s energy needs.

When most people think of geothermal energy, they usually think of extremely high heat, such as geysers. But the Geothermal Map of North America produced by Richards and Professor David Blackwell for the American Association of Petroleum Geologists in 2004 revealed locations all over the United States where subsurface temperatures are high enough to drive small, binary power plants and generate electricity. Blackwell and Richards are members of the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences in SMU’s Dedman College.

This kind of power plant is similar to an air conditioning unit run backwards, using heat to generate electricity. The hot water that runs through one chamber in the pump heats fluid with a lower boiling point in an adjacent chamber, which expands into high-pressure vapor and drives a turbine.

Deep drilling through hard rock is expensive, which is one reason traditional geothermal energy development has lagged behind green technologies like wind and solar power. But Blackwell’s mapping has proven that many existing oil and gas wells in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and some mid-continent states reach shallower depths where temperatures still range from 200-300 degrees Fahrenheit – hot enough for a binary power plant to do its job.

The Geothermal Showcase was sponsored by the Geothermal Energy Association along with Ormat, Enel North America, and Pratt and Whitney Power Systems.

(Above, Maria Richards and David Blackwell of SMU’s Huffington Department of Earth Sciences.)

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