Expanding the footprint of Geothermal Energy

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Expanding the footprint of Geothermal Energy ( expanding-footprint-geothermal-energy )

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Over the long term, the potential for geothermal power produc- tion can hardly be overstated. The earth’s crust serves as an insulating blanket over an otherwise hot planet. At differing depths, there is hot rock virtually everywhere, meaning that the thermal resource is as geographically dis- persed as sunshine and is often available just a few hundred to a few thousand feet underground. Yet access remains difficult and costly. Ideal conditions for power generation include a high-temperature permeable res- ervoir fed by groundwater; such resources are accessible in only a few, relatively small geographic areas of the world—typically in seismically active areas at the boundaries of the tectonic plates. A few very high temperature reservoirs (>572oF [>300oC]) capable of venting large volumes of dry superheated steam have been tapped, but despite a half cen- tury of development, geothermal power production is still modest. The limitations are commonly land use constraints, restricted access, and long distances to existing transmission corridors. More than half of the U.S. capacity of 3100 mega- watts (MW) is produced by the Geysers— the world’s largest commercial geothermal field, about 80 miles (129 km) north of San Francisco. Worldwide capacity of more than 10,000 MW is concentrated around Iceland and along the “Ring of Fire” in Indonesia, Mexico, Japan, the United States, Latin America, New Zea- land, and the Philippines. Geothermal energy provides consider- able advantages for power generation. Unlike wind and solar, it can generate baseload power with a capacity factor in the 80%–90% range and be readily dis- patched to follow load. It requires very little surface land, is relatively free of emis- sions, requires no fuel supply, is amenable to dry-cooling technology in arid regions, and can be used to meet state renewable portfolio standard requirements. Thus, the incentives for wider, more robust develop- ment are substantial. “What is exciting to The STory in Brief Geothermal power production has been constrained by a focus on the world’s best, high-temperature resource fields. Now, innovative technologies for tapping intermediate- and low- temperature geothermal reservoirs promise to open up development in geographic areas not previously considered. me is trying to make more of the geother- mal resource available for use,” said Travis Coleman, EPRI’s geothermal energy proj- ect manager. “In fact, everything we are doing in our program is focused on expanding the geographic footprint of cost-effective geothermal energy.” Two Domains of Technology Expanding geothermal power will require advancing two very different domains of technology, one above the surface and one below. Above-surface technology includes the wellhead, gathering system, and steam turbine technologies for converting the energy of high, moderate, and low hydro- thermal resources to electricity. High-tem- perature resources (>392oF [>200oC]) involve direct steam flow into the turbine. Moderate-temperature resources (>302oF– 392oF [150oC–200oC]) are commonly accessed through flash technology, in which the hydrothermal fluids flash to steam as the pressure is reduced on the way to the surface. The separated steam is run through conventional steam turbines, and the brine is reinjected into the reser- voir (or if hot enough, flashed a second time). All this technology is fairly mature, and improvements tend to be incremental. In contrast, recent advances in less mature binary-cycle technology are opening access to the far more abundant and widely dispersed low-temperature resources (212oF– 302oF [100oC–150oC]). The more critical need is to improve technologies focused on the underground reservoir. These include the geoscience and methodologies for exploring geothermal resources. The primary risk for any geo- thermal project lies in accurately identify- ing, characterizing, and confirming the resource. Also required is sophisticated resource management to sustain the flow of heat and water into and out of the reservoir during production. This can be a delicate balancing act, involving seasonal demands for electricity, the permeability of the rock, flow rates within the reservoir, and surface- level power plant cooling requirements during hot weather. In addition, efforts are growing to coproduce geothermal power with oil and gas and to find and utilize abandoned wells with sufficiently high thermal gradients. For large-scale expansion, the greatest potential is in the development of tech- nologies for enhanced geothermal systems, which will involve creating new permeable reservoirs thousands of feet below ground by controlled fracturing of crystalline rock. This approach is at the exploratory stage, but offers the potential of breaking the geographic barrier. The Promise of Low- Temperature Binary Systems On a more modest scale, binary systems could open significant areas of the United States to low-temperature geothermal development. Low-temperature fluids are widely available at shallow to mid-range well depths in the western United States, SUMMER 2011 15

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