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Posted on January 24th, 2012

Outside the Box – Oil Wells and Geothermal Power

The United States is home to some 2.5 million abandoned oil and gas wells. Once great providers of energy, these wells have been dormant for years and, in some cases, for decades. Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences believe these wells could be retrofitted to tap into the geothermal energy contained beneath the surface of our planet. Rock temperatures increase by 25-50 degrees Celsius for every kilometer of depth due to the extreme heat emanating from the Earth’s core; and experts believe that the trapped heat in each well could provide approximately 50 kilowatts of electricity. Alone this number is small compared to what is produced at a coal burning power plant, but multiplied by the millions of inactive wells across the country, we could have a serious new resource for energy. In 2008, the Department of Energy designed the first low-temperature geothermal unit in an oil field in a testing center in Wyoming. The well has been producing energy since steadily, and has an approximate overall capacity of 217 kilowatts.

Universal GeoPower used $1.5 million in stimulus funds in 2010 to assess 4,000 abandoned oil and gas wells across the state, as well as 37,500 wells in the Gulf Coast region. These wells are expected to be used to produce low-pressured geothermal brine water. The hot wastewater that is an ordinary byproduct of oil and gas wells would be circulated through a specially designed binary power plant to generate electricity. This used in conjunction with active wells will help to offset the costs typically associated with oilfield production.

ExxonMobil recently released a report that says 15% of the world’s power will be renewable by 2040. Bloomberg New Energy Finance echoed this sentiment as well. According to their findings, in 2010 there was $187 billion spent on renewable energy projects as compared to $157 billion for natural gas, oil and coal.

Demand is expected to be 30% higher in 2040 than in 2010, and natural gas from shale and other unconventional rock resources will account for 30% of global gas production by that date. This means that there will still be a continued heavy reliance on traditional forms of energy, but alternative energy such as wind, ocean, biomass and solar, as well as the potential of shale and geothermal wells could set the trend in the years beyond.

So while the world trudges onward looking for clean energy sources, we are still dependent on our tried and true traditional energy assets. With this research that is examining the use of dormant and abandoned wells to produce geothermal power, as well as to maximize the efficiency of currently active wells, the future is bright for this new form of energy production.

Justin Harmon

Staff Writer

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