Coal Country A Geothermal Powerhouse?

In New Zealand, geothermal energy accounts for over 10% of the country’s total electricity usage. Could the U.S. also be sitting on top of a huge green power source, literally? A new mapping project, conducted by Southern Methodist University’s Geothermal Laboratory and funded by a grant from Google.org, suggests that the answer is ‘yes’–and that the state with the highest generation potential is currently at the heart of coal country.

This map has revealed that the temperature of the Earth beneath the state of West Virginia is significantly higher than previously estimated and capable of supporting commercial baseload geothermal energy production. And by significantly higher, they mean 75% higher than those previous estimates, which were based on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s “The Future of Geothermal Energy” report back in 2006. The new report places West Virginia’s estimated geothermal generation potential at 18,890 megawatts, exceeding the state’s total current (primarily coal-based) generating capacity of 16,350 megawatts.

West Virginia

image via Google Maps

This revision comes as the result of new, more detailed mapping and interpretation of temperature data derived from oil, gas, and thermal gradient wells – part of an ongoing project to update the Geothermal Map of North America produced by the SMU Geothermal Laboratory in 2004. The new map essentially reveals that West Virginia’s unique rock formations work to bring the hotter temperatures associated with greater depth closer to the surface beneath this state, and into viable geothermal range.

“By adding 1,455 new thermal data points from oil, gas, and water wells to our geologic model of West Virginia, we’ve discovered significantly more heat than previously thought,” said David Blackwell, Hamilton Professor of Geophysics and Director of the SMU Geothermal Laboratory, in a statement.  “The existing oil and gas fields in West Virginia provide a geological guide that could help reduce uncertainties associated with geothermal exploration and also present an opportunity for co-producing geothermal electricity from hot waste fluids generated by existing oil and gas wells.”

The new map was recently presented at the 2010 Geothermal Resources Council annual meeting; a summary of the report is available online.

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Susan DeFreitas has covered all manner of green technology for EarthTechling since 2009. She is a graduate of Prescott College for the Liberal Arts and the Environment, and has a background in marketing green businesses. Her work on green living has been featured in Yes! Magazine, the Utne Reader and Natural Home.

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