Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences Dedman College Research Earth Sciences Faculty News

Geothermal energy, W.Va’s next big energy sector?

The Register Herald

Originally Posted: February 28, 2016

There’s thermal energy in them hills!

Well, under them hills.

West Virginia is sitting on the largest geothermal hot spot in the eastern United States, so scientist say.

Scientists believe the Mountain State sits on several hot patches of earth, some scorching hot as 200 degrees Celsius, which is nearly 400 degrees Fahrenheit, according to

The magazine reports the energy is only slightly more than 3 miles below ground. “If engineers are able to tap the heat, the state could become a producer of green energy for the region,” the magazine hypothesizes.

West Virginia’s resources are mostly EGS type (for electricity) and not the traditional hydrothermal plants which are built in the western part of the United States..

Data from Southern Methodist University estimates EGS geothermal resources in West Virginia would be about 1 to 6 gigawatts of EGS. A gigawatt is equal to 1,000 megawatts = 1 billion watts. The total capacity of U.S. electricity generating plants in 2012 was about 1,100 gigawatts, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Benjamin Matek, an industry analyst and research projects manager at the Geothermal Energy Association, said geothermal fields in California have generated energy for close to 50 years and some in Europe for more than a century.

However, the geothermal plants are more popular in Europe than in the United States.

Geothermal plants are “built in Europe but the Europeans have a friendly business environment for projects like this. They offer a really high FITs (a type of design) for geothermal power because of its environmental and economical values,” he said.

One European country investing heavily in geothermal is Iceland, an island nation of about 800,000 people, which started development of geothermal energy about 70 years ago, today is the largest user of geothermal energy in the world.

Thordur H. Hilmarsson, director of Invest in Iceland, said within the past decade the country’s use of geothermal energy has increased drastically.

Today in Iceland, about 80 percent of the energy production is used for production of aluminum and various other energy dependent industrial processes such as production of silicon metal. So only 20 percent of the electricity is used by the general public and smaller industries.

However, that 20 percent is put to good use. “Geothermal energy is also used for central heating of 90 percent of all houses in Iceland,” he wrote in an email response to questions submitted by The Register-Herald.

Hilmarsson said foreign countries have expressed interest in locate to Iceland because of the geothermal energy. He explained there are three benefits to the energy source:

• Competitive energy prices

• Longterm power contracts with fixed base price conditions

• Availability of green and sustainable energy sources allowing the industries to reduce their carbon footprint.

Iceland made economic development around the geothermal resources a priority.

“In Iceland we have the first geothermal resource park at the Reykjanes Peninsula (a small headland on the southwestern tip of the island) where the main aim is to utilize the energy streams for industrial purposes,” Hilmarsson wrote in his email reply.

Engineering companies and Icelandic scientists are leaders in know-how in both harnessing and designing around utilization of geothermal resources, he said. These companies are currently working internationally on geothermal projects.

Iceland’s data centers, fish farming, algae production and production of green methanol are just few examples industries benefiting from the multiple energy streams available from the geothermal sources, he said.

Time is one drawback to geothermal energy, Hilmarsson said. The long lead time from researching of a geothermal area to actually building a power plant based can take between seven to 10 years, he said.

The process includes test drilling to investigate the capacity of the area in mind as well as completion of Environmental Impact Assessment prior to all permitting.

Matek said geothermal’s biggest positive for West Virginia would be the health benefits and improved air quality. Geothermal power can replace fossil fuel facilities megawatt for megawatt, generating the same type of base load power, yet do not have emissions which reduces asthma and health problems for people who live around the plant, he said.

“In some places in Africa, Japan and Costa Rica plants are actually built inside national parks with no or little adverse impacts on the wildlife, park or air quality,” he said.

He said the cost would be about the same. Generally its about about $4,000 to $6,500/kilowatt.

“I would expect a plant in West Virginia would be on the upper end of that range.

Plants normally sign PPAs (Power Purchasing Agreements) between 17 cents and $1.10 cents/kWh in the west,” he said.

Maria Richards, a geothermal expert and geographer at SMU, said she was surprised to find West Virginia as a hot spot.

“Nobody expected West Virginia to show up as a hot spot,” she told Science magazine. READ MORE