A river of federal funding will power a large-scale experiment in rural Utah intended to develop new ways to extract geothermal energy from less-than-ideal locations. If it proves successful, this renewable resource could become a major power source throughout the nation.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our research,” said John McLennan, associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Utah, who celebrated along with the likes of Gov. Gary Herbert and Rep. Chris Stewart. “It is fabulous for the state.”
The U.S. Department of Energy announced the $140 million in funding Thursday. That money, spent over the next five years, will expand the FORGE laboratory, short for Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy, in Milford.
Right now, there is one rather traditional experimental well. McLennan and his team will add two state-of-the-art horizontally drilled geothermal wells.
Geothermal energy is created when water is injected underground, where it is heated by the earth, turned into steam and that steam moves turbines to create electricity. With existing technology, this works only in places where natural cavities are available to heat the water.
At FORGE, researchers are tapping techniques picked up from the oil and gas industry’s hydraulic fracturing to create geothermal reservoirs, which could be replicated widely.
In hydraulic fracturing, chemicals are injected into rock, creating fissures that allow the extraction of natural gas or oil.
Herbert said this research “will put Utah on the map as a world leader for geothermal research as well as expand geothermal production here in rural Utah and throughout the world.”
The experiment will not create energy; rather it will test techniques and methods that could be used in other geothermal wells.
“The university’s research revolutionizes production, meaning that clean, reliable energy could be produced in thousands of locations,” said Stewart, Utah’s Republican congressman for the area. who helped secure the grant. “This will truly transform the energy industry.”
Geothermal electricity is produced only in Western states, like Utah, and creates 3.8 gigawatts. The Energy Department said the goal through this experiment is to create 100 gigawatts of renewable power.
Federal Energy Secretary Rick Perry said these enhanced geothermal systems ”will help diversify the United States’ domestic energy portfolio, enhance our energy access, and increase our energy security.”