Abundance of clean, economical geothermal energy in the state’s existing oil and gas wells gets the cold shoulder

In an energy and environment report on Texas, NPR covered the SMU Geothermal Laboratory‘s research to locate and quantify the huge geothermal resources available for production from existing oil wells within Texas. The NPR report relied on the expertise of SMU geothermal expert Maria Richards, director of the SMU Geothermal Laboratory.

SMU’s Geothermal Laboratory is a renowned national resource for the development of clean, green energy from the Earth’s heat.

Historically, geothermal development has been restricted to areas with substantial tectonic activity or volcanism, such as The Geysers field in California. But SMU’s sophisticated mapping of geothermal resources makes it clear that vast geothermal resources reachable through current technology could replace and multiply the levels of energy currently produced in the United States — mostly by coal-fired power plants.

Three recent technological developments are feeding increased geothermal development in areas with little or no tectonic activity or volcanism:

  • Low Temperature Hydrothermal – Energy is produced from subsurface areas with naturally occurring high fluid volumes at temperatures ranging from less than boiling to 300°F (150°C). This approach is producing energy in Alaska, Oregon, Idaho, and Utah.
  • Geopressure and Coproduced Fluids Geothermal – Oil and/or natural gas are produced together with electricity generated from hot geothermal fluids drawn from the same well. Systems are installed or being installed in Wyoming, North Dakota, Utah, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.
  • Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) – Subsurface areas with low fluid content but high temperatures are “enhanced” with injection of fluid and other reservoir engineering techniques. EGS resources are typically deeper than hydrothermal resources and represent the largest share of total geothermal resources capable of supporting larger capacity power plants.

SMU researchers have completed a national mapping project backed by Google.org that makes it possible to access reliable geothermal data (heat flow and temperature-at-depth information) culled from oil and gas development all over the country. Their mapping project already has determined that there is potential for more electric generation from geothermal sources in West Virginia than is currently being produced by the state’s mostly coal-fired generation plants.

NPR’s Oct. 17 coverage featured a radio interview with SMU’s Richards. “What might Texas look like if power plants replaced pump jacks?”

Read the full article and listen to the radio interview.


By Dave Fehling

There are thousands of oil & gas wells in Texas that tap into the earth’s supply of hot water, some of it a boiling hot 250 F. There are modern, high tech steam engines that could use the water to make electricity. There was a federally-funded experimental power plant that proved the technology could work in Texas.

Yet, geothermal power has gotten a cold shoulder in the state.

“They made (the power plant) work, they proved it was successful, and then they dismantled it because they didn’t have funding to keep the project going,” said Maria Richards, a researcher at Southern Methodist University’s Geothermal Laboratory.

A Texas Experiment that Worked
That 1989 project backed by the U.S. Department of Energy was called the Pleasant Bayou Power Plant. The electricity it generated would power about a 1,000 homes and was sold to what was then Houston’s utility company, HL&P.

The little power plant was located in Brazoria County in an field just ten miles north of Galveston Island which wasn’t by accident. Richards said she and colleagues have found that the hot water that comes from some two miles underground is hottest in the counties along the Gulf Coast where layers of sediment are thicker than in other parts of Texas.

“That layer of sediment acts like an insulator so it’s similar to your blanket on a bed that it’s keeping the heat down there, ” said Richards.

The irony is that while the boom in “fracking” has meant that there are thousands of wells being drilled that could be sources of hot water, the same boom has increased the supply of natural gas. The gas is a relatively cheap fuel for big power plants and its abundance diminishes the interest in alternative sources of energy like geothermal.

A Geyser that Ran Out of Steam
It wasn’t always this way. The Texas General Land Office said at one point, geothermal energy developers had taken out nine leases for wells on state land.

“Texas has a lot of holes drilled in it already from hydrocarbon production. And that also means anyone who’d like to do geothermal energy production can go down those holes and that saves them a considerable amount of money,” said Jim Suydam, spokesperson for the Land Office.

But none of the proposed projects ever took off and the leases lapsed.

“In 2005 there was a great deal of interest in Texas geothermal. Since then there’s been a glut of natural gas on the market due to the advances of hydraulic fracturing. And that’s lowered the price of natural gas substantially and has made geothermal energy production less economically viable,” said Suydam.

But it’s backers aren’t deterred.

“The market I think is huge for this because the fact is, there are over 800,000 oil & gas wells in the United States. And there’s three million gallons per minute of hot water just in the top eight states,” said Loy Sneary, CEO of Gulf Coast Green Energy.

Read the full article and listen to the radio interview.

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