By Dylan J. Darling

The Bulletin

Newberry Volcano south of Bend is one of five sites in the running to be home to a federal field laboratory focused on geothermal energy.

The U.S. Department of Energy this week announced it is giving $2 million total, $400,000 each, to groups representing the sites so each can conduct detailed analysis of its suitability as a laboratory location.

In 2016, the Department of Energy will trim the field to three candidates. Those would then split $29 million to further develop their plans over another year.

“We are going to do our best to be among the three at the end of the year,” Alain Bonneville, a senior scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, said Wednesday. The other potential sites are in California, Idaho, Nevada and Utah.

The laboratory has joined with Oregon State University and Seattle-based AltaRock Energy in representing Newberry. AltaRock has ongoing geothermal experimentation of its own at Newberry Volcano, but that work is separate from this effort.

Traditional geothermal energy comes from naturally occurring steam. At Newberry there is underground heat but not steam, so the plan is to create a geothermal source by cycling water down an injection well and bringing steam and hot water up a production well.

Independently, AltaRock has experimented with a method of creating a geothermal energy source, called enhanced geothermal systems, using a five-year, $21.5 million matching grant from the Department of Energy issued in 2010.

Starting in 2012, AltaRock poured cold pressurized water down a 10,000-foot well drilled deep into hot rock within Newberry Volcano, creating a network of cracks to serve as a heat exchanger, said David Stowe, AltaRock spokesman. The company still hopes to find partners to drill a production well, where steam and hot water would be drawn up, and eventually build a power plant.

The possible new federal lab, to be called the Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy, would occupy a separate drilling pad than the ongoing AltaRock project and conduct its own experiments, he said.

“They would build an actual laboratory,” Stowe said.

Newberry Volcano is an amazing place with a high potential to be a geothermal source, said Adam Schultz, a geophysics professor at OSU in Corvallis.

“There is a big source of heat down there,” he said.

The other sites being considered by DOE for the laboratory likely have lower heat potential, so the hot rock could make Newberry stand out. If selected, the laboratory could be a place for researchers, including students from OSU’s main campus and OSU-Cascades in Bend, to conduct experiments.

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, AltaRock and OSU would lead research at the laboratory, and it would be open to other organizations, companies and universities.

While the cracking of underground rock involved in enhanced geothermal systems has brought comparisons to controversial fracking — the extracting of oil and natural gas from rock by injecting high-pressure mixtures of water, sand and chemicals — Bonneville said it is not fracking.

Instead, “it is the stimulation of existing fractures,” he said.

If enhanced geothermal systems can be perfected, they could be used to create geothermal energy elsewhere around the United States and the world, Bonneville, the scientist at the national lab in Richland, said. Like Newberry, these would be in places where there are not geysers or other natural geothermal sources.

“You have hot rocks,” he said, “but they are dry.”

The Department of Energy seeks to develop more types of renewable energy.

“Enhanced geothermal systems could represent the next frontier of renewable energy and hold the potential to diversify the nation’s energy portfolio while reducing greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere,” Undersecretary for Science and Energy Lynn Orr said in a Department of Energy press release earlier this week.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812,