Bad News for Geothermal Energy: Two Major Projects Bite the Dust

By Andrew Moseman | December 14, 2009 12:20 pm

hole-in-groundDreams that major geothermal energy plants could power our future took a major hit last week, as worries over earthquakes and technical failures killed two ambitious projects in consecutive days. The two projects both hoped to harvest the heat of deeply buried bedrock by drilling down, fracturing the rock, and then circulating water through the fissures to produce steam that could drive turbines.

First, on Thursday, the $60 million plan to tap geothermal energy beneath Basel, Switzerland, died for good after a Swiss government study said it would cause millions of dollars in damage through earthquakes each year. The project, led by Markus O. Häring, a former oilman, was suspended in late 2006 after it generated earthquakes that did no bodily harm but caused about $9 million in mostly minor damage to homes and other structures. Mr. Häring is to go to trial next week on criminal charges stemming from the project [The New York Times].

The Swiss project required drilling more than 16,000 feet into the ground, and would have provided electricity to 10,000 homes. But the government’s report stated that the region could see as many as 170 earthquakes during the project’s 30-year lifespan, including 30 during just the first phase of drilling, though most would be minor.

The United States’ geothermal hopes suffered, too, as the AltaRock project located north of San Francisco announced on Friday that it will shut down, despite extensive financial support. In addition to a $6 million grant from the Energy Department, AltaRock had attracted some $30 million in venture capital from high-profile investors like Google, Khosla Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers [The New York Times]. AltaRock broke drill bits while trying to tap deep rock, and annoyed and worried nearby California residents with its earthquake potential.

This certainly isn’t the end for geothermal power. Other attempts in Switzerland to tap the heat of the Earth’s crust to produce clean energy continue in zones that are less earthquake-prone. Engineers in Zurich started preliminary drilling last month to see if the area was suitable for such a geothermal project [AP]. Scientists say the Swiss government’s report shouldn’t be used to doom other projects, since it focused narrowly on Basel. Here in the United States, the Department of Energy has allocated $440 million just this year to geothermal projects and doesn’t plan to give up on the idea, especially because there are other methods that don’t require fracturing rock or drilling so deep.

Related Content:
80beats: Geothermal Energy Project May Have Caused an Earthquake
80beats: Geothermal Explosion Highlights a Downside of a Leading Alt-Energy Source
80beats: Google Invests in Energy from Hot Rocks Deep Underground
DISCOVER: The Great Forgotten Clean-Energy Source: Geothermal

Image: flickr/Hitchster

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • http://genevalunch.com Ellen Wallace, editor, GenevaLunch.com

    In our coverage of the closing in Basel (http://genevalunch.com/blog/2009/12/11/basel-bids-farewell-to-geothermal-drilling/) we noted that Switzerland has 300-400 earthquakes a year, but only 3-4 above 3.0 on the Richter scale. It’s the possible increase in strength plus frequency that has officials worried. It’s probably also worth noting that there is a good deal of surprise in Switzerland that no officials from Basel are charged, only Haering. The project was a private-public partnership.

  • Wil

    Since one of the focuses of this article is the Basel project, it is bizarre and strange to mention that Mr. Haring will be tried on criminal charges concerning this project, and yet not give even the tiniest bit of information about that.

    It makes one suspect that some important and germaine events have taken place concerning this topic, that are not mentioned. It also makes one wonder why the author of this blog has avoided mentioning them.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    Hi, Wil — nothing nefarious is going on. This blog gives people the basic info on a story, and links to the sources that have more details. Just follow the top link to The New York Times for more info on Mr. Haring’s trial.

  • http://www.alternativerenewableenergysources.com Jennifer Haynes

    Stop throwing away all that money on your energy bill every month! Alternative energy is the key and you will also be saving the environment.

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