Bringing Geothermal To The Fore: Play Fairway Analysis

It sounds like PGA Tour talk. “Play fairway analysis” – maybe a new way to track how well golfers stay out of the rough? No, it’s a mapping and analysis technique that the U.S. Department of Energy says could make geothermal energy less expensive to pursue.

Just as the government helped bring about the shale gas revolution by backing a wide range of research and development efforts [PDF], it’s looking here to partner with private companies, dangling $3 million to support R&D projects. The payoff in this case could be clean energy.

geothermal power

Ormat’s Tuscarora plant in Nevada (image via Ormat Technologies)

So, what exactly is play fairway analysis? From the funding-opportunity supporting docs [PDF]:

A play fairway analysis defines levels of uncertainty with respect to the presence and utility of geothermal system elements, and translates them into maps to high grade the geographic area over which the most favorable combinations of heat, permeability, and fluid are thought to extend.

This gets to the heart of one of the most expensive aspects of geothermal development: the risk of drilling and coming up empty (or even a little bit short). It’s one of the main reasons a seemingly attractive energy source like geothermal, which is able to provide around-the-clock low- and no-emissions energy, remains a bit player in the larger picture. Again, from the DOE:

Identifying and characterizing these hidden systems is challenging and costly, with resource confirmation relying on the drilling of multimillion dollar wells, often with low success rates. Reducing this risk through improved exploration and drilling success rates is critical to securing investment and ultimately lowering overall costs.

Not only does the DOE’s support for geothermal here recall earlier government support for gas and oil exploration, it actually borrows a technique.

[Play fairway analysis] identifies prospective geothermal resources in areas with no obvious surface expression by mapping the most favorable intersections of heat, permeability, and fluid. While commonly used in oil and gas exploration, play fairway analysis is not yet widely used in the geothermal industry. By improving success rates for exploration drilling, this data-mapping tool could help attract investment in geothermal energy projects and significantly lower the costs of geothermal energy.

According to federal data [PDF], there were about 3.83 gigawatts of installed geothermal capacity in the United States as of the end of 2013. That’s the most in the world, but it’s a slender one-third of 1 percent of total U.S. generating capacity, and growth recently has been fairly modest. This despite the fact geothermal, with its ability to produce 24/7, has a key advantage over intermittent wind and solar.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.