Thursday, February 8, 2007

'Flabbergasted' About Geothermal in Nashua, NH

Reprinted with permission from The Nashua (New Hampshire) Telegraph.

"At the risk of being one of those people who talks about their vacations all the time (I’m actually one of those people who talks about their kids all the time), I must admit that ever since I visited Iceland last year, I’ve really wanted a geothermal power plant.

That doesn’t mean one of the so-called “geothermal” systems we have around here, which are really heat-exchange systems that use the constant temperature of well water to lower the cost of heating and cooling a building.

I’m talking about real geothermal, which uses extreme heat from underground magma or natural radioactive decay to boil water and send it shooting up through power-producing turbines.

Iceland has lots of that stuff, since it’s located over the joint where the European tectonic plate is separating from the North American plate, so magma is constantly shooting up out of the ground. (Iceland is basically one-third volcanoes, one-third glaciers, and one-third Bjork fans.)

One time, in fact, Iceland had to stop drilling a geothermal well because a volcano erupted right up through the borehole! Is that neat or what?

It’s the only such event in history, as I learned from the video for visitors at the massive Krafla power plant. I writhed with envy when I heard it, because I live in seismically inactive, geologically boring New Hampshire. No subsurface magma here.

"So I was flabbergasted last month when I saw that a much-publicized MIT report urging geothermal energy for the U.S. cited our own Conway as a potential location for a power plant."

In fact, it was the only promising site east of the Mississippi.

“That’s because of all the granite you have. The uranium, thorium and potassium act like a natural nuclear reactor and keep the rock warm,” said Ron DiPippo, a former dean of engineering from UMass-Dartmouth who was on the panel that wrote the report.

In fact, he said in a telephone interview last week, during the 1970s oil shocks a “hot, dry rock” experiment was planned for Conway to determine the suitability of geothermal power, but it never went anywhere.

The new study, titled “The Future of Geothermal Energy,” says the best bet is a more aggressive method that involves pumping water down to subterranean heat sources, so it can shoot back up again and power the turbines. They call it the Enhanced Geothermal System.

Alas, further review of the report shows that Conway is the least promising of the various locations considered by the group, because you’d have to drill down six miles to get enough heat. (By contrast, a deep drilled well goes down barely one-tenth of a mile.)

As a result, the cost estimates put together by the 18-member panel at the urging of the U.S. Department of Energy say power from a Conway geothermal plant could cost two to six times as much as from the other sites it considered, all of which were out West.

“It’s certainly one of the more expensive places to look at,” admitted DiPippo.

But finding cheap power to be tapped in the next few years wasn’t the point of the study. It was designed to highlight the plausibility of geothermal energy in the U.S., so that more research and development will occur and geothermal can be added to the nation’s mix of power sources.

Maybe even in the North Country.

“If we’re talking 40 or 50 years down the road and petroleum is either non-existent or so expensive we have to look for alternatives, then it’s not unreasonable to begin to look at places like Conway,” said DiPippo. “We’ve got to start looking at this now, if we want it to succeed."

Man, I am ready. Could you imagine it: A day of skiing, then taking a dip in a geothermal hot tub?

Eat your heart out, Bjork!"

Link to the original Nashua Telegraph online publication, February 7, 2007: Geothermal energy is hot topic in U.S. among scientists
'Acronym Soup' ~ MIT UMass