Earth & Climate Energy & Matter Learning & Education Technology

SMU “Power Plays” conference to promote development of oil and gas fields for geothermal energy production

“Power Plays,” on Dallas campus April 25-26, is SMU Geothermal Laboratory’s eighth international energy conference and workshop

SMU’s renowned SMU Geothermal Laboratory will host its eighth international energy conference April 25-26 on the Dallas campus, focused on using the oilfield as a base for alternative energy production through the capture of waste heat and fluids.

In addition to oil and gas field geothermal projects, experts will discuss coal plant conversion for geothermal production, the intersection of geothermal energy and desalination, and large-scale direct use of the energy source produced by the internal heat of the earth.

Power Plays” begins with an opening reception and poster session from 5:30 p.m. – 8 p.m. Monday, April 25, followed by a daylong program of speakers and presentations Tuesday, April 26. Conference details are available here. Walk-up registration is available at the conference site, the Collins Center at 3150 Binkley Avenue, Dallas, 75205.

The technology that is the primary focus of the conference takes advantage of an existing resource frequently considered a nuisance – wastewater produced by oil and gas wells during extraction. As a well ages it will typically produce more water and less oil or gas over time, which raises the cost of production. Where the produced wastewater is hot enough, and the water flow rate is sufficient, specially designed turbines can draw geothermal energy from the wastewater.

That “bonus” geothermal energy can be used to either generate electricity to operate the oil field equipment and lower the cost of production, sell the electricity directly to the power grid or — more likely — to nearby industry users seeking a highly secure electrical source.

“Initial demonstration projects have taught us a great deal about the complexities of transitioning an oil or gas well to geothermal energy production,” said Maria Richards, director of the SMU Geothermal Lab. “Collaboration continues between the oil and gas industry and the geothermal community, and this conference is the place to hear about the technology, business models and legislation that all play a role in developing geothermal resources. We are confident that geothermal energy production will one day be the norm for an aging oil and gas field.”

The appearance of AltaRock Energy’s Susan Petty to discuss “Transitioning Coal to Geothermal: Baseload Renewable Power With No CO2” will be the first examination of this type of geothermal production at the SMU conference, Richards said, adding that she is pleased to see geothermal technology being combined with other energy systems, from large scale solar operations to electricity generated by on-site flare gas.

“The small surface footprint of geothermal energy makes it a desirable player for developers looking to maximize all possible resources on their site,” Richards said.

SMU’s Geothermal Lab team members are leaders of academic data sources for exploration and assessment of existing and potential geothermal resources. SMU scientists developed the Geothermal Map of North America and built one of the primary nodes of the National Geothermal Data System (NGDS) for temperature and oil/gas data. Their research efforts include over 50 years of continuous thermal data collection and is viewed by the community as an important first-stage resource used in determining the potential for geothermal energy production in the United States.

The SMU Geothermal Lab has been the recipient of approximately $10 million in research grants from a variety of sources, including the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the Texas State Energy Conservation Office, and private industry. — Kim Cobb

SMU is a nationally ranked private university in Dallas founded 100 years ago. Today, SMU enrolls nearly 11,000 students who benefit from the academic opportunities and international reach of seven degree-granting schools. For more information see

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Earth & Climate Energy & Matter

Geothermal heat: Will Earth’s “hot rocks” become new “Texas tea”?

Texas, which has been the nation’s largest fossil-fuel producer, also has an abundant supply of another natural resource for a different kind of energy boom: clean, renewable, geothermal energy.

Like the oil and gas beneath Texas, there’s a huge quantity of naturally occurring “hot rocks” underground that could be tapped for geothermal energy to produce electricity, according to new research by SMU scientists. South and East Texas have an abundant supply, say the researchers.

iphone%20feb%205%202008%20058.jpg“There is more than enough heat below our feet to take all the state’s industrial consumption off the existing transmission grid,” says Maria Richards, program coordinator for the SMU Geothermal Laboratory.

Lab researchers recently completed an assessment of geothermal resources in South and East Texas for the Texas State Energy Conservation Office, or SECO. They found enough heat to supply Texas with clean, renewable, affordable electricity for hundreds of years, Richards says. Some of the state’s largest urban areas sit atop the vast regional geothermal zone, which extends east from Interstate 35 and includes Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, Corpus Christi and Kilgore.
Maria Richards with a driller on an oil rig.

The SMU analysis will be part of The Energy Report, a SECO report on clean and renewable energy resources in Texas. SECO funded the SMU Geothermal Laboratory research with a $200,000 grant. SMU will submit the assessment to SECO later in June.

Currently Texas gets the bulk of its electricity from natural gas-, coal- and nuclear-powered generating plants. But commercial interest in geothermal energy is growing both in the state and nationwide, says David Blackwell, one of the country’s foremost authorities on geothermal energy and a professor at SMU. Over the past 12 months, SMU’s Geothermal Laboratory has received a record number of requests from private entities asking for help in developing commercial projects, says Blackwell, who has advised the industry for the past 40 years.

Pioneers in assessing the nation’s geothermal resources, Blackwell and Richards revealed the potential for widespread geothermal development with their Geothermal Map of North America, published in 2004 by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.

The two also helped author a 2007 study led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology that found geothermal energy could supply a substantial amount of the energy the United States will need in the future, likely at competitive prices and with minimal environmental impact. The MIT study’s authors said geothermal energy is especially attractive because it is widely available, doesn’t have to be stored to supply minimum demand, and has a small footprint with low or no emissions. It is also considered virtually inexhaustible, according to the Geothermal Energy Association.

The MIT study estimated the U.S. geothermal resource base at more than 13 million exajoules, which is a measurement of stored thermal energy. The extractable portion of that is estimated at more than 200,000 exajoules, or about 2,000 times the annual U.S. consumption in 2005 of primary energy, according to the report.

Currently the U.S. has more geothermal generating capacity online than any other country, about 30% of the world’s total, according to the Geothermal Energy Association.

MikePaul%5B1%5D.JPGTexas is uniquely positioned for geothermal development, according to Blackwell and Richards. That’s due in large part to the state’s thousands of existing oil and gas wells that could be developed in various ways to tap geothermal heat.

Pictured right: Michael Paul, SMU director of energy management and engineering, collects temperatures at a field near Corpus Christi

The SMU Geothermal Lab’s research has proven the potential for drawing electricity from low-temperature geothermal sources through “binary” technology. A binary power plant circulates hot groundwater through an existing oil or gas well to heat a secondary fluid. The resulting vapor then drives turbines to generate electricity.

There are thousands of oil and gas wells in Texas that could be economical for geothermal development, Richards says. That’s especially true since the technology can operate concurrently in oil and gas wells, which would significantly reduce the cost of geothermal exploration. Geothermally produced electricity could then offset the power normally required to operate oil-field production units. Additionally, excess electricity could be sold back to the statewide electric transmission grid. Depleted oil and gas wells that are slated for abandonment could again generate revenue when tapped for geothermal production.

SMU’s regional assessment for SECO covered 91 counties. It calculated the geothermal heat under South and East Texas at 921,085 exajoules, giving the state enormous geothermal potential. Anywhere from 2 percent to 10 percent of that is recoverable, depending on the efficiency of the conversion technology and the location of the resource.

“As humans we have no real concept as to how much heat is below our feet,” Richards says. “We feel the sun in our face, and the wind in our hair, but we don’t feel the Earth’s heat through our feet.”

SMU’s researchers analyzed historical temperature data for wells drilled since the early 1990s. Drilling logs for each hole include temperature recordings taken at various depths. The SMU analysis looked at wells ranging from 2,000 feet to 20,000 feet deep. The researchers were surprised that the temperature in some wells ran as hot as 450 degrees Fahrenheit, Richards says.

Wells drilled from 9,000 feet to 14,000 feet deep, with temperatures downhole of 250 degrees or greater, will likely be economical for geothermal energy. They would be sufficiently hot and reasonably close to the surface. In deeper wells, unless they flow naturally, the binary technology would require too much electricity.

The team of SMU Geothermal Laboratory researchers included six graduate and undergraduate students.

“This turned out to be a wonderful project for the students,” Richards says. “With President Barack Obama’s push for more emphasis on science and renewable energy, these are students on the leading edge of that whole process. And they are focused on a project that was funded by the state of Texas.” — Margaret Allen

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SECO: Texas Geothermal Energy
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Earth & Climate Economics & Statistics Energy & Matter

Earth’s inner heat holds promise of generating much-needed electric power in Northern Mariana Islands

A chain of 14, breathtaking Pacific islands is paradise lost without reliable electricity.

The Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth some 1,500 miles east of the Philippines, has seen its garment industry waste away in the face of global competition. Attracting replacement industry is difficult, in part because of the commonwealth’s undependable power supply. Rolling blackouts are the norm, caused by aging power plant equipment and the irregular delivery of expensive, imported diesel to run the plants.

SMU’s geothermal energy team of faculty and graduate students is aiming to prevent the Islands’ economic oblivion by helping to convert their volcanic heat into affordable, renewable energy.

James Quick

“This [energy crisis] could be the United States 20 years from now,” says James E. Quick, associate vice president for research and dean of graduate studies at SMU.

Quick knows from his own work in the Marianas what it would mean for residents to cut their dependence on costly diesel fuel. He directed a volcano-monitoring program for the islands during his previous career with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Most recently Quick has served as a liaison for the island government in its search for renewable energy: He introduced Northern Mariana officials to SMU’s recognized experts in geothermal energy: David Blackwell, W.B. Hamilton Professor of Geophysics in Dedman College, and Maria Richards, coordinator of SMU’s Geothermal Lab.

In the Marianas, the SMU team is studying the potential applications for two different types of geo-thermal systems that use Earth-heated water and steam to drive turbines and produce electricity.

David Blackwell

Testing has been completed on volcanic Pagan Island, where the results are being studied to determine if a large, steam-driven power plant like those found in California and Iceland may be a fit.

On Saipan, the most populated island in the Marianas chain, subsurface water temperatures are lower because there is no active volcano. Testing of existing water wells completed in early summer supports the potential for building smaller power plants designed for lower temperatures. Plans call for drilling a test bore hole on Saipan to confirm water temperatures at deeper depths.

Interest in geothermal energy has been growing against a backdrop of rising oil prices. is providing nearly $500,000 to SMU’s Geothermal Lab for improved mapping of U.S. geothermal resources. Blackwell, who has been collecting heat flow data for 40 years, is credited with drawing attention to the untapped potential energy source with his Geothermal Map of North America, first published in 2004.

The investment in updating that map will allow Blackwell to more thoroughly mark locations where potential exists for geothermal development.

Blackwell and Richards are convinced that oilfields may be some of the most overlooked sites for geothermal power production in the United States. SMU’s geothermal team is offering an energy solution that would boost capacity in low-producing oilfields by using the deep shafts drilled for petroleum products to also tap kilowatt-generating hot water and steam.

The process of pumping oil and gas to the surface frequently brings up a large amount of hot wastewater that the industry treats as a nuisance. Install a binary pump at the well head to capture that waste hot water, Blackwell says, and enough geothermal energy can be produced to run the well, mitigating production costs for low-volume wells. It can even make abandoned wells economically feasible again.

Taken a step further, surplus electricity generated from an oilfield full of geothermal pumps could be distributed to outside users at a profit. This kind of double dipping makes sense for short and long-term energy production, Richards says.

“This is an opportunity,” she says, “for the energy industry to think outside the box.” — Kim Cobb

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SMU Geothermal Lab
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Google video: Advanced geothermal technologyvideo.jpg
CBN News: Geothermal energy right under our feet
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SMU Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences
Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences