Research Spotlight: West Virginia a hotbed of geothermal energy

wv-image-03-press-release.jpgNew research produced by SMU’s Geothermal Laboratory, funded by a grant from Google.org, suggests that the temperature of the Earth beneath the state of West Virginia is significantly higher than previously estimated and capable of supporting commercial baseload geothermal energy production.

Geothermal energy is the use of the Earth’s heat to produce heat and electricity. “Geothermal is an extremely reliable form of energy, and it generates power 24/7, which makes it a baseload source like coal or nuclear,” said David Blackwell, Hamilton Professor of Geophysics in the Huffington Department of Earth Sciences and Director of the SMU Geothermal Laboratory.

The SMU Geothermal Laboratory has increased its estimate of West Virginia’s geothermal generation potential to 18,890 megawatts, assuming a conservative 2 percent thermal recovery rate. The new estimate represents a 75 percent increase over estimates in MIT’s 2006 “The Future of Geothermal Energy” report and exceeds the state’s total current generating capacity, primarily coal based, of 16,350 megawatts.

The West Virginia discovery is the result of new detailed mapping and interpretation of temperature data derived from oil, gas, and thermal gradient wells – part of an ongoing project to update the Geothermal Map of North America that Blackwell produced with colleague Maria Richards in 2004. Temperatures below the earth almost always increase with depth, but the rate of increase (the thermal gradient) varies due to factors such as the thermal properties of the rock formations.

“By adding 1,455 new thermal data points from oil, gas, and water wells to our geologic model of West Virginia, we’ve discovered significantly more heat than previously thought,” Blackwell said. “The existing oil and gas fields in West Virginia provide a geological guide that could help reduce uncertainties associated with geothermal exploration and also present an opportunity for co-producing geothermal electricity from hot waste fluids generated by existing oil and gas wells.”

The team’s work may also shed light on other similar geothermal resources. “We now know that two zones of Appalachian age structures are hot – West Virginia and a large zone covering the intersection of Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana known as the Ouachita Mountain region,” said Blackwell. “Right now we don’t have the data to fill in the area in between,” Blackwell continued, “but it’s possible we could see similar results over an even larger area.”

Blackwell thinks the finding opens exciting possibilities for the region. “The proximity of West Virginia’s large geothermal resource to east coast population centers has the potential to enhance U.S. energy security, reduce CO2 emissions, and develop high paying clean energy jobs in West Virginia,” he said.

SMU’s Geothermal Laboratory conducted this research through funding provided by Google.org’s RE<C initiative, which is dedicated to using the power of information and innovation to advance breakthrough technologies in clean energy.

Written by Kimberly Cobb

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