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Monday, February 16, 2015


A couple of times/year I go into depth on geothermal energy.  After all, this was the second "clean" energy technology I worked on, even before the First Energy Crisis in 1973.  The first was as an engineer with the sugar industry, which treated biomass.

The Hawaii Geothermal Project was formed in  1972 to explore for, drill and produce steam to generate electricity in Puna on the Big Island.  I was there from Day 1 as one of the  reservoir engineers, and would only later be impressed that we actually produced 3 MW.  Why?  Almost all the other renewable energy projects we initiated failed.  Government provided universities funds to develop solar photovoltaics, wind power, biofuels and so forth mostly because industries shied away until these options became commercially feasible.  The iPhone you use has undergone a million failures in Apple's labs.  We were the guinea pigs for green, next generation energy.

Anyway, we went down more than mile, 6140 feet, and struck steam at 640 F, the hottest such well in the nation.  In 1982 we finally generated electricity into the grid and also in 1986 built Noi'i O Puna (left, from top, blessing, welcome by Governor George Ariyoshi, and the power plant), a research facility to stimulate co-products:  artworks from the silicate, warming of seeds to promote biomass production, production of colored fabrics, onsens, etc.

The lab was popular with the people, but the geo-electricity was not, leading to Federal Judge David Ezra siding with the environmentalists, marijuana growers, Hawaiian activists and recent immigrants living in the area to retard the expansion of this option.  Puna Geothermal Venture finally did succeed in installing 38 MW, but the potential could have been 500 MW, with electricity cabled to Oahu.

There remain hiccups to expand geothermal on the Big Island, but some interest seems to be brewing on the island of Maui.  After all, Haleakala erupted less than 500 years ago, and geophysicists consider volcanoes to be active if the last eruption was 10,000 years ago.

Geothermal energy is baseload, in that the power is always there.  It is said that hot dry rock geothermal has the potential to produce most of the electricity used around the world.  The middle of our planet is at 9000 F, and there are numerous spots where the magma reaches the surface, like Hawaii.  The conventional alternative is has been shown to be cost effective, and is right down there with coal and nuclear.  However, you can imagine the economics of oil when you know that, for the same size pipe, a good oil well in Saudi Arabia effectively produces 500 MW of power.

To further bring you up to date:
  • Maria Richards was elected as the 26th President of the Geothermal Resources Council, to replaced current President Paul Trophy in 2017.  She coordinates the Geothermal Laboratory at SMU.  She is a reservoir engineer.
  • The Geothermal Energy Association released a survey exploring the economic benefits of geothermal facilities, including revenues, royalties, employment and environmental advantages.
  • If you're confused, the GRC serves as the focal point for professional development through outreach, information transfer and education services , while the GEA is a trade association.
  • The GRC is hosting a workshop from June 22-26 at the Yellowstone National Park, the site of the "greatest concentration of geothermal features in the world."  While the cost is $1500 to members and $1700 for non-members, covered will be accommodations in West Yellowstone, transport to and from the workshop, various materials and a few meals.  The deadline for registration is June 12, and only 50 spaces are allocated.

The GEA's events this year include:

  • State of Geothermal Industry Briefing, DC, February 24.
  • National Geothermal Energy Summit, Reno, June 3-4.
  • Geothermal Energy Expo, as part of the GRC Annual Meeting, Reno, September 20-23.
The World Bank has mobilized $235 million to scale up geothermal energy.  Read about their Global Geothermal Development Plan.  The World Bank has provided $2.2 billion in financing for geothermal energy projects, towards 1,000 MW in Indonesia and assisting Kenya with the largest expansion in Africa.  Ormat Technologies, for example, has been involved with Kenya Power and Lighting to bring capacity to 134 MW.

While the USA remains #1, growth is only being experienced internationally, with the world market now up to 12,700 MW in 24 countries:  600 new MW in 2013 and 700 MW in 2014, none in the U.S., for the Federal Production Tax Credit expired.  Today, there are 11,700 MW of additional capacity in development and 1800 MW under construction in 80 countries.


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