How an Enhanced Geothermal System Works The Economist

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“Fuels extracted from the ground are the primary resource for much of the world s s energy. Use. But they also pollute our environment. A promising new technology called engineered systems or egs aims to create clean energy by harnessing heat from beneath the earth.

The idea is simple drill deep enough into the earth s crust and the rocks below will eventually be hot enough to boil water collect the steam and it can be used to run turbines producing clean electricity 24 hours a day gabriel evans used to say about nuclear energy that it was the most complicated way you could think of the boil water well with geothermal energy were bringing it right out of the ground boiling so then way it s the simplest way you can boil water because the earth s doing it for you according to a 2007 report by the massachusetts institute of technology. There is so much heat stored in rocks between three and ten kilometers just below the surface that extracting as little as two percent would provide thousands of times. The amount of energy america will ever need and similar subterranean heat reserves were estimated below australia and europe the big idea is quite simply. If you look at a heat map of the united states.

What you realize is you have hot rock. Everywhere if we drilled right. Here in the us capitol. Building 20000.

Feet. The rocks are boiling hot a great resource. But it can only be accessed using egs so how does it work first a suitable drilling location has to be determined based on estimates of the hot rock formations below..

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Once chosen a well is drilled to access the rocks anywhere from three to ten kilometers below the surface once the desired depth is reached cold water is injected down the well to fracture the subsurface rocks creating permeable channels and allowing the water to circulate this is called stimulation and is the engineered piece of egs finally one or many production wells are drilled to access the newly created underground reservoir and to provide exits to the surface for the hot steam. The superheated water typically then heats a second fluid. Which drives a generating turbine producing electricity before cooling re entering the ground. Most egs systems are closed loop.

Meaning. The fluid is recycled. As long as the subsurface structure. Remains intact.

An e gs plant can be expected to produce power for a couple of decades. Before the temperature of the reservoir diminishes and in addition to creating a constant flow of 24 hour. Electricity. An e gs plant could provide heating to nearby homes.

As well egs has been in development since the early 1970s. But progress has been slow due to the extreme technical difficulties of the work and a persistent lack of funding. But recently renewed global interest has revived its prospects..

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A pilot project in europe that susu foray in france has made the most progress since it was commissioned in the 1980s proving the concept and producing one and a half megawatts between two wells. Perhaps the most ambitious project in scale. Today is that of geo dynamics in australia. Which hopes to be producing hundreds of megawatts using egs by the end of this decade and in the united states as part of the stimulus package.

The department of energy has invested over 300 million dollars into improving geothermal technologies with 133 million dollars earmarked for egs projects alone a few years ago program request for appropriations was zero in front of congress. And we have been able to build the program back up partly. Because of the promise of an entity of thermal systems one of the demonstration sites. Receiving stimulus funds is the geysers power company the world s largest hydro thermal site located in the hills.

Above. California s wine. Country. It s run by cal pine.

A power utility company. Many egs projects will begin at the edges of traditional geothermal power stations like this one here. Cal pine hopes to use the technology to reopen an abandoned steam..

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Well the geysers have been operating for 50 years. So the expensive infrastructure is already in place to test new egs techniques. The goal for this first project is really to demonstrate the concept. We don t have an absolute target.

What we re looking for is something it s better than what we would otherwise get if we just injected it through what we call traditional injection wells traditional hydrothermal power development is already expensive and egs. Only increases those costs drilling wells and fracturing. The ground alone can cost twice as much for egs than in traditional systems. Even then there are technological hurdles.

Below. The surface like increasing the rate of water flow through the reservoir to make the system economically viable that remain unresolved the process also has an unwelcome side effect it creates small earthquakes. It s called induced seismicity and though no significant damage has ever occurred from a geothermal project. These can make it unpopular with the public small earthquakes happen when humans fracture underground rocks.

But their vibrations also provide information and one of the only ways for researchers to know what is happening below the surface with care the seismicity required by egs can be kept at a low safe magnitude. Dr. Ernie majors team at the lawrence berkeley national laboratory is monitoring seismicity at every egs demonstration site in the united states..

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I think it can be managed very nicely in and hopefully five years from now in this seismicity will be a tool rather than an issue. The mit. Report noted that the first 100 megawatts of installed egs capacity will be the most difficult to achieve. But after that it should get easier and cheaper to produce.

Scarcer and more expensive oil would potentially drive. The process forward more quickly. But whether or not oil prices change. The next decade will be crucial for determining whether engineered geothermal systems have their place in the world s energy production.

If they do humans may soon benefit from the earth s largest battery itself. ” ..

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