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

Geothermal energy could mean a renewable future for Colorado’s oil fields

Originally Posted: December 8, 2021

The grasslands north of Fort Morgan in eastern Colorado are a hive of energy production. Clusters of spinning wind turbines mark the horizon. And, of course, oil and natural gas operations are everywhere. As far as oil fields go, this one is roughly middle-aged. Wells here are still comfortably profitable. But that won’t last forever.

That’s why the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Committee is in the process of hashing out rules to determine how much money oil and gas operators will be required to set aside to pay for plugging wells at the end of their useful lives. The rules are meant to prevent orphan wells, which happen when an operator abandons a well and leaves the state on the hook to clean it up.

But emerging advances in renewable technologies could help extend the operating life of aging oil wells and help address Colorado’s orphan well problem.

Selena Derichsweiler is chief executive officer of Transitional Energy, a local renewable energy startup. She and her business partner, Ben Burke, both worked for years in the oil and gas industry. Now, they are more interested in another thing the wells are bringing to the surface: geothermal energy.

“The temperature is the most valuable to me — wherever it’s hottest and has the most flow rate,” Derichsweiler said. “That temperature, that’s the thermal resort.”

Reconsidering a waste stream

According to Maria Richards, geothermal lab coordinator at Southern Methodist University, every oil and gas well doubles by default as a geothermal well.

“They are already mining the geothermal heat with every single one of their wells,” Richards said. “With every barrel of oil or cubic foot of gas that they bring up, they are mining the geothermal resources.”

But the oil and gas industry has never treated that heat as an asset to be tapped. If anything, Richards says they see the heat — in the form of hot water — as a nuisance that has an operating cost attached to it.

“They have to pay to get rid of that water,” Richards explained.

In part, that’s because oil and gas reservoirs are a lot cooler — 150 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit — than traditional geothermal sources, which are typically closer to 600 degrees Fahrenheit, so the geothermal potential hasn’t been obvious. READ MORE