Idaho researchers considering geothermal research center

Researchers at Idaho National Laboratory and state universities believe it’s possible to bolster the nation’s energy supply by using super-heated rocks deep below the earth’s crust.

How is that possible?

By studying a process that already occurs naturally.

“Yellowstone sits at the expression of a continental hot spot … making this (area) a prime location for enhanced geothermal systems,” University of Idaho professor Tom Wood said. “There is much greater heat down there than in other places in the world and it is taking forever to cool … it’s a very large, world-class resource we are in the wake of.”

Millions of years ago, volcanic seismic activity, particularly from the Yellowstone Supervolcano, reshaped the Idaho landscape. Those forces left behind a geological diversity rich in minerals, underground reservoirs and hydrothermal vents that spawned geysers and hot springs such as those found at Soda Springs and Yellowstone National Park.

The seismic activity also left Idaho with another resource — massive amounts of super-heated rock below the surface, especially beneath the Snake River Plain. Today, that rock is the subject of intense scrutiny by state researchers, who believe the heat produced by the rock can be harnessed to create energy.

Researchers at INL, the Center for Advanced Energy Studies, and in- and out-of-state universities are collaborating to mine those rocks for that geothermal energy.

“To have a geothermal system, you need heat, fluid and the ability of rock to transmit the fluid so it can be harvested and made into electricity,” INL geologist Robert Podgorney said. “But the places you find all three of those together, the low hanging fruit, have already been picked (in areas) where their are geysers or hot springs.”

So, researchers are looking beyond hydrothermal vents to create geothermal energy artificially. Those researchers are hoping to establish a new U.S. Department of Energy laboratory at INL, the Frontier Observatory for Research of Geothermal Energy or FORGE.

“We know if we drill deep enough, we’ll find heat and if you can do some engineering work and create cracks to move our own fluid (through the heated rock) then we can make geothermal portable and accessible as a resource around the world,” Podgorney said.

The proposed center’s goal would be to develop technology to create these enhanced geothermal systems. Researchers suspect between 30 to 50 gigawatts of energy could be harvested annually from Idaho alone. The U.S. generates about 1,000 gigawatts a year from fossil fuel, renewable and nuclear energy production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Once developed, researchers said the enhanced geothermal systems would be a closed system with few environmental consequences.

“Our job would be to chose places … that could facilitate a reservoir at depth where we could cycle enough water through the rock to extract heat,” CAES researcher Travis McLing said. “The water is recycled and so the carbon footprint is very small. Unlike a (fossil fuel) plant, there are no big smoke stacks, you can drive by a geothermal plant and really not know it’s there.”

Whether the FORGE Center ends up at INL remains to be seen, however. There is significant state support for the project, but Idaho is one of a number of potential sites under consideration by the Department of Energy.

“Given the availability of geothermal energy right here in Idaho, INL is the perfect place for the federal government to further research advanced geothermal technologies,” Rep. Mike Simpson said in an emailed statement. “The INL’s work in this area really highlights the multi-program aspect of the lab and its importance to our nation’s energy future across the full spectrum of sources and technologies.”

Idaho researchers believe the Gem State has a good chance of securing the competitive bid, given the potential of its geothermal resources.

A site will be chosen in the coming weeks and funded through the Department of Energy. A timeline for the project is unclear.

“We have the best and brightest in the country working on our team with us and … the site is really good, we have our 890-mile desert with lots heat under it and lots of water,” McLing said. “And this is something that really resonates with (state politicians) … the very reason Idaho is here is because of volcanoes … and people in this state identify with geothermal energy — it’s quintessentially Idaho.”