Dreams 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].
Geothermal energy, a promising but increasing controversial type of alternative energy, is on the hot seat again, this time in a German town that experienced an earthquake that some are blaming on the local geothermal power plant. A government panel is investigating claims that the plant triggered a magnitude-2.7 earthquake on 15 August in the town of Landau…. If the panel finds against the company that built the plant, Geox of Landau, it could be shut down [New Scientist].
Geox hasn’t been very vocal about the cause of the quake, but company officials initially denied any responsibility for the temblor and continue to dispute the government’s data linking the project to the quake. The panel will, among other things, have to sort through the conflicting data presented by the company and government scientists [The New York Times].
A leading geothermal company has been rocked by an explosion from a well drilled deep into the earth, which was part of a system that converts the heat from buried rocks into clean, green energy. On Friday evening at the South Australian test site, a burst of pressurized water and steam blew through the well “cellar,” the 22-foot deep concrete structure set in the ground through which the deeper well is drilled.
In geothermal energy systems, wells are drilled two or three miles deep and water is circulated past the hot rocks at that depth to collect heat; the resulting steam is then used to run turbines in a power plant. Geodynamics, the Brisbane-based company that operates the South Australia well, is widely tipped as being closest to making the technology cost effective. Geodynamics holds the rights to a potential power supply of up to 10 gigawatts trapped in a 1000-square kilometre slab of hot granite deep under the town of Innamincka in South Australia [New Scientist]. But this accident is an embarrassment for the cutting-edge company. No one was injured by the blast, but the company was forced to suspend work on its first demonstration power plant, and a nearby highway was diverted.
Google and General Electric have announced a partnership aimed at upgrading the United States electric power grid and pushing forward the development of renewable energy. The companies plan to conduct a joint lobbying effort in Washington to encourage the government to invest in developing a “smart grid,” and will also work together on projects like geothermal energy systems and integrating plug-in electric cars into the grid. The deal combines each company’s strengths: GE will make the hardware — from wind turbines to metering switches, and Google will make the software — applying network technologies to the grid [Portfolio].
The announcement follows a speech given two weeks ago by Google CEO Eric Schmidt, in which he laid out a blueprint for how the United States could switch over to generating 100 percent of its electricity from renewable energy by 2030, while also eliminating half of the gasoline-powered cars from the roads. While Google hasn’t offered to follow through on that comprehensive proposal, which carried the hefty price tag of $2.7 billion, the partnership with GE seems to indicate that Google wants to put many of its suggestions into practice.
Google.org, the philanthropic wing of Google, has announced a $10 million investment in a renewable energy technology that’s powered by hot rocks several miles beneath the earth’s surface. The technology, called Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS), differs from traditional geothermal energy that relies on finding natural pockets of hot water and steam. Instead, EGS fractures the hot rock, circulates water in its system, and uses the steam created from the process to create electricity in a turbine [Cleantechnica].
The system could augment less reliable renewable energy sources like solar and wind power, which don’t generate steady amounts of energy. Google executive Dan Reicher says EGS would be very dependable, and could be revolutionary. “It’s 24-7, it’s potentially developable all over the country, all over the world, and for all that we really do think it could be the ‘killer app’ of the energy world” [New Scientist].