Ore. town uses geothermal energy to stay warm

(AP) -- When snow falls on this downtown of brick buildings and glass storefronts in southern Oregon, it piles up everywhere but the sidewalks. It's the first sign that this timber and ranching town is like few others.

A combination of hot rocks and water like those that created Yellowstone's geysers have been tapped by the city to keep the sidewalks toasty since the early 1990s. They also heat downtown buildings, kettles at a brewhouse, and greenhouses and keep the lights on at a college campus.

Geothermal wells in this town of 20,000 mark one of the nation's most ambitious uses of a resource with a tiny carbon footprint, and could serve as a model for a still-fledgling industry that is gaining steam with $338 million in stimulus funds and more than 100 projects nationwide.

"We didn't know it was green. It just made sense," said City Manager Jeff Ball.

is unknown in much of the country but accounts for 0.5 percent of the nation's .

It can be seen on a snowy day in a handful of Western towns like Klamath Falls. That's because hot rock is closer to the surface here, and comes with the water needed to bring the energy to the surface. Northern California is home to the world's largest complex. The Geysers, 75 miles north of San Francisco, produces enough electricity for 750,000 homes.

With more than 600 geothermal wells heating houses, schools and a hospital as well as turning the turbine on a small power plant, Klamath Falls shows what everyday life could be if stimulus grants and venture capitalists turn geothermal energy from a Western curiosity to a game-changing energy resource.

Until now, geothermal energy has been limited by having to find the three essentials ingredients occurring together in one place naturally: hot rock relatively close to the surface, water, and cracks in the rock that serve as a reservoir.

Those limitations go away if engineers can tame a technology known as EGS, for Enhanced Geothermal Systems.

A 2007 Massachusetts Institute of Technology report estimates that EGS, with support, could be producing 100 gigawatts of electricity - equivalent to 1,000 coal-fired or nuclear power plants - by 2050, and has the potential to generate a large fraction of the nation's energy needs for centuries to come.

"If we are going to try to achieve a transformational change in this country, geothermal should be part of that recipe," said Jefferson Tester, chairman of the committee that produced the report and professor of sustainable energy at Cornell University. "It's not treated that way. It's typically forgotten."

One form of EGS involves drilling thousands of feet down to reach hot rock, pumping water down to fracture the rock to create reservoirs, then sending down water that will come back up another well as hot water or steam that can spin a turbine to generate electricity.

The system can be dropped in practically anywhere that hot rocks are close enough to the surface to make drilling economical.

The major problem with EGS is the potential to create earthquakes.

Pumping water into the ground to open numerous tiny fractures in the rock for a reservoir makes the earth move - what scientists call induced seismicity. Earthquakes stopped an EGS project in the middle of Basel, Switzerland, last year, and an international protocol has been developed for monitoring and mitigating earthquake problems.

As long as the wells are not close to major earthquake faults, "it is not damaging, but very upsetting to the community that lives literally on top of it," said Ernie Majer, a seismologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, and lead author on the protocol.

Federal funding for geothermal started during the 1970s Arab oil embargo, waned when oil prices subsided, and essentially stopped when Texas oilman George W. Bush entered the White House, Majer said.

With interest growing in energy with a tiny , the Obama administration revived support for geothermal energy. Besides handing out more than $40 million a year from the Department of Energy, it is funding 123 demonstration projects in 38 states with stimulus funds. Projects include home heat pumps, power plants, drilling, rock fracturing, exploration and underground mapping.

"The goal of the department is to try to validate that a source of energy could be produced at an adequate price," said Jacques Beaudry-Losique, deputy assistant secretary for renewable energy. He expects results in two to three years.

The centerpiece is $25 million to AltaRock Energy, Inc., of Seattle and Sausalito, Calif., to demonstrate EGS can produce electricity economically and without producing earthquakes just outside the Newberry Craters National Monument in central Oregon. Investors, Google among them, put in $60 million.

Earthquake concerns were mounting around AltaRock's EGS work at The Geysers when they shut it down over drilling problems, before getting to the point of trying to fracture rocks, AltaRock CEO Don O'Shei said. They are developing a system to monitor quakes at Newberry.

"If EGS becomes economical, it will really be a game-changer," O'Shei said. "Even though it is relatively high risk in terms of the money to develop that kind of technology under the ground ($6 million to $20 million for a well that could prove worthless), it is very important."

People in Klamath Falls don't have to be convinced.

IFA Nurseries, Inc., wouldn't have come to Klamath Falls if there wasn't geothermal energy. The geothermal heat cut greenhouse heating costs by a third compared to natural gas, said Jacqueline Friedman, nursery manager for IFA Nurseries.

The city is stepping beyond heat to electricity, building a geothermal generator like the one at Oregon Institute of Technology with the help of an $816,000 stimulus grant.

Stepping gingerly from the icy street to the dry sidewalk on his way to a bakery for a cinnamon roll, Klamath County Museum Manager said visitors are often curious about the geothermal energy in town, which also heats the museum.

"I've always said the city should adopt a slogan, `City of Warm Sidewalks,'" he joked. "But I've been told we'll get every hobo in America who will be drifting into town."

Explore further

Research provides model for improving alternative energy source

©2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Citation: Ore. town uses geothermal energy to stay warm (2010, March 20) retrieved 21 July 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2010-03-ore-town-geothermal-energy.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Mar 20, 2010

GeoThermal is not ever going to be cost effective in most places because of drilling costs.

Also most nuke, coal plants are 1gigawatt, not .1 GWT.
In real life GT will only be a few % of our energy needs.

It would be far better to put the GT generators on nuke/coal/NG/solar thermal powerplants between the steam engines and the condensers. Not only does it make them 20% more eff but cuts cooling/condenser equipment and energy costs. That would make far more power than one could ever hope from GT units at far less cost as not expensive drilling needs to be done.

Mar 21, 2010
The earthquake effect described is a beneficial side effect. Imagine a large number of small strength earthquakes that do little damage preventing a single catastrophic large earthquake.

Mar 21, 2010

I read of a paper quite a few years ago where it was suggested that such a method could be used to bleed off the energy of any future San Andreas fault earthquake.

The main problem was that it would have required people living along the fault to have put up with the equivalent of a jack-hammer outside every house banging away 24 hours a day for the next 30 years...

The energy released by an earthquake is immense.

Mar 22, 2010

BIG ISSUE: one should not pump irradiated water down through the water supply just to cool it off, if something like that got passed I would leave the town and move two states away to be safe and then send a letter of complaint. that idea has environmental hazzard written all over it.


the earthquakes are not beneficial -- period


you are spot on. The energy released by an earthquake is quite simply earth shattering:
i will do a sample equation in next post

Mar 22, 2010
take LA - it sits on about 470 square miles... and the density of rock is 2-3 g/cm3 - lower than the 5.5 for the density of the earth becuase to be fair lets ignore the core... and say only the top ten feet were moved. I am lazy so for this demo E=(1/2)m*v^2.


Mar 22, 2010
Still having issues

i used 470 square miles as area of LA city and assumed it was a circle, then converted to meters.
I keep trying to show my work and it says error on page.

470 * (mi^2) = 1.21729441 * 10^9 m^2
volume of a cyclinder = pi*r^2*h
10 feet = 3.04800 meters
so volume= 1217.29441 10^9 * 3.048 = city is assumed to be a circle to make this simple

3709 * 10^9 m^3 * 2000000 g / m^3 = 7.41800 * 10^15 kg - note converted to kg

E = .5 * 7.41800 * 10^15 g * ( 0.00125 m / s) ^2
E =(3.70900*((10^15)g)*(0.000002(m^2)))/(s^2)
= 7,418,000 joules

Mar 22, 2010
error was a symbol i was using could not be used in a post.

take LA - it sits on about 470 square miles. and the density of rock is 2-3 g/cm3 - lower than the 5.5 for the density of the earth, to be fair lets ignore the iron core. say only the top ten feet were moved. I am lazy so for this E=(1/2)m*v^2.

470 * (mi^2) = 1.21729441 * 10^9 m^2
volume of a cyclinder = pi*r^2*h
10 feet = 3.04800 meters
so volume= 1217.29441 10^9 * 3.048 = city is assumed to be a circle to make this simple

3709 * 10^9 m^3 * 2000000 g / m^3 = 7.41800 * 10^15 kg - note converted to kg

let v=.125 cm/s - 1/8 of a cm per second really really slow - you might not even feel this
0.125 (cm / s) = 0.00125 m / s

1/2 m*v^2

E = .5 * 7.41800 * 10^15 g * ( 0.00125 m / s) ^2
E =(3.70900*((10^15)g)*(0.000002(m^2)))/(s^2)
= 7,418,000 joules

this excludes the people cars and building on top of the dirt in LA - and the fact that the entire county is moved - and velocity is much higher.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more