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Posted on March 28th, 2012

Outside the Box – Dormant Volcanoes

A sleeping giant, well, a sleeping volcano may be the next potential source for energy generation. Geothermal energy developers plan to spend $43 million on a project that will pump 24-million gallons of water into a dormant volcano in central Oregon. Google and a US Department of Energy (DOE) grant will help fund two private firms, AltaRock Energy, Inc. and Davenport Newberry Holdings LLC, who plan to prove the feasibility of this emerging energy source. The idea is that the water will return to the surface fast and hot in hopes of creating clean electricity. Many recent efforts to harvest geothermal energy in new and innovative ways have been hampered by technical problems and the risk of potential earthquakes, these two firms hope that will not be their fate as well.

The process involves drilling wells into the rock and then pumping in water, a process known as hydroshearing. Similar to fracking, which is used to free natural gas from shale formations, hydroshearing methods don’t use chemical fluids that could penetrate groundwater and cause health problems in humans and animals that consume the water. The risk of triggering earthquakes though is very real, as evidenced recently both in Ohio and Arkansas through the fracking process. Developers in the Oregon volcano project feel that this technology is potentially much safer as researchers say the area is a seismic dead zone and that there are no fault lines near the area of interest.

Geologists believe that the Newberry volcano was once one of the tallest peaks in the Cascade mountain range, likely with an elevation of near 10,000 feet. It is believed to have ‘blown its top’ before the last Ice Age. The volcano has been dormant for over 1,300 years but still retains high levels of heat. Seismic sensors will produce detailed maps of the fracturing which is expected to start at 6,000 feet below the surface and extend as deep as 11,000 feet.

The US Geothermal Energy Association released findings that there are nearly 3 million megawatts of untapped geothermal energy that could be harnessed through technologies such as fracking and hydroshearing. However, in 2010 there were only 3,000 megawatts of geothermal energy captured. Compared to other alternative forms of energy like wind, this really is a sleeping giant provided that developers can find clean and efficient methods of extraction. In June of 2011, wind power harvested over 40,000 megawatts of energy so there is hope that the near future could be very productive.

According to a report that MIT submitted to the DOE, tapping just 2% of the heat up to 6 miles below the surface of the United States could provide up to 2,500 times as much energy as the country uses, wow! Imagine the implications for the country on so many levels if we can harness this form of energy. Further assessment has to be done in terms of the potential risks, but for the future, the core is the limit.

The Newberry volcano lies out in Central Oregon. This very unsuspecting field is actually home to great potential for the energy market. This 60-cm QuickBird image captured on September 22, 2011 by DigitalGlobe reminds us of where else to look for alternative forms of energy. Imagery enhanced by Apollo Mapping.

Justin Harmon

Staff Writer

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