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Going deep to find an alternative energy source

Scientists say heat from inside the earth could meet global demands, with little effect on the climate or environment. But drawbacks exist.

August 05, 2007|Eliane Engeler and Alexander G. Higgins | Associated Press Writers

BASEL, SWITZERLAND — When tremors started cracking walls and bathroom tiles in this Swiss city on the Rhine, engineers knew they had a problem.

"The glass vases on the shelf rattled, and there was a loud bang," Catherine Wueest, a teashop owner, recalls. "I thought a truck had crashed into the building."

But the 3.4-magnitude tremor on the evening of Dec. 8 was no ordinary act of nature: It had been accidentally triggered by engineers drilling deep into the Earth's crust to tap its inner heat and thus break new ground -- literally -- in the world's search for new sources of energy.

Basel was wrecked by an earthquake in 1365, and no tremor, human-caused or other, is to be taken lightly. After several smaller tremors followed, authorities told Geopower Basel to put its project on hold.

But the power company hasn't given up. It's in a race with a firm in Australia to be the first to generate power commercially by boiling water on the rocks three miles underground.

On paper, the Basel project looks fairly straightforward: Drill down, shoot cold water into the shaft and bring it up again superheated and capable of generating enough power through a steam turbine to meet the electricity needs of 10,000 households, and heat 2,700 homes.

Scientists say geothermal energy, clean, quiet and virtually inexhaustible, could fill the world's annual needs 250,000 times over with almost no effect on the climate or the environment.

A study released this year by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said that if 40% of the heat under the United States could be tapped, it would meet demand 56,000 times over. It said an investment of $800 million to $1 billion could produce more than 100 gigawatts of electricity by 2050, equaling the combined output of all 104 nuclear power plants in the U.S..

"The resource base for geothermal is enormous," professor Jefferson Tester, the study's lead author, told the Associated Press.

But there are drawbacks -- not just earthquakes, but cost. A so-called hot rock well three miles deep in the U.S. would cost $7 million to $8 million, according to the MIT study. The average cost of drilling an oil well in the U.S. in 2004 was $1.44 million, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Also, rocks tapped by drilling would lose their heat after a few decades and new wells would have to be drilled elsewhere.

Bryan Mignone, an energy and climate-change specialist with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., said alternative sources of energy faced stiff price competition.

"Currently in the U.S., new technologies in the power sector are competing against coal, which is very cheap," he said.

Humans have used heat from the earth for thousands of years. The ancient Romans drew on hot springs for bathing and heating their homes. Geothermal energy is in use in 24 countries, including the U.S.

But those sources -- geysers and hot springs -- are near the surface. Hot dry rock technology, also called "enhanced geothermal systems" or EGS, drills down to where the layers of granite are close to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The equipment is similar to that used for oil, but needs to go much deeper, and be wider to accommodate the water cycle.

Hot dry rock technology is meant to stay well away from the 99% of the Earth's interior that exceeds 1,000 F.

Aeneas Wanner, a Swiss expert, says that if you imagine Earth as an egg, "a bore hole would only scratch the shell of the egg a little bit."

The United States led the way in demonstrating the concept with the Los Alamos geothermal project at Fenton Hill, N.M. The project begun in the 1970s demonstrated that drilling 15,000 feet deep was possible and that energy could then be extracted.

But the project came to a halt in 2000 when it ran out of funds. Meanwhile, the MIT report said, problems found in testing have been solved or can be managed -- such as controlling how the water flows underground or limiting quakes and chemical interactions between water and rock.

Backers in the United States hope government funding will increase as oil and gas prices rise. But Steve Chalk, deputy assistant secretary for renewable energy, said the Department of Energy wouldn't spend more than the $2 million it had already allocated to hot rock technology.

However, he said the MIT study, which was funded by the Energy Department, serves as a basis for further review of the idea.

Major energy companies, including Chevron Corp., Exxon Mobil Corp. and American Electric Power, told the AP they were following the research but not investing in it.

"This is an interesting technology for Chevron, and we are currently evaluating its potential," said spokesman Alexander Yelland.

In Basel, the first shaft was bored last year by a 190-foot-tall drilling rig towering above nearby apartment buildings. Water was pumped down the injection well in the test phase in December and, as expected, it heated to above 390 F as it seeped through the layers of rock below.

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