By Hilary Corrigan
A group of developers and researchers expects their site near the Newberry Volcano to make the cut into the next round of siting a national geothermal research lab.
“We feel pretty confident,” said David Stowe, a spokesman for Seattle-based AltaRock Energy Inc., a geothermal firm that leases the Newberry land and has conducted testing at the site.
The possibility of Deschutes County landing the Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy has garnered support from federal, state and local elected officials. Proponents expect the facility would generate temporary construction jobs, academic opportunities through area colleges and universities, and an economic boost for local communities that could benefit from visiting researchers and workers.
The U.S. Department of Energy wants the proposed lab to serve as a research site for scientists and engineers to develop and test new technologies for enhanced geothermal systems.
Enhanced geothermal involves injecting water into the ground where there is hot, impermeable rock below. The injected water circulates and opens up existing small fractures, sending heat to the surface where steam can generate electricity. The water returns to the human-made underground reservoir in a cycle.
The Energy Department expects that research from the future observatory would produce data and testing for the scientific community and industry to better access a possibly huge resource. Researchers expect that tapping up to 2 percent of the geothermal energy potential in the West could power the nation several times over. Proponents of the technology note geothermal’s lack of greenhouse gas emissions and its ability to operate consistently, rather than intermittently like solar and wind-powered resources.
The Newberry site, located on federal land at the Newberry Volcano, has long been explored for potential geothermal resources.
The Newberry Volcano became a national monument in 1990 out of concern about geothermal development in the area. Different efforts have been made to tap the geothermal potential around Newberry, but no conventional geothermal systems — without enhanced technology — exist outside the monument’s boundaries in the region, Stowe said.
Now, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington leads the effort to make Newberry the research lab for enhanced geothermal, partnering with Oregon State University, GE Global Research and Statoil, a Norway-based oil and gas company; as well as Seattle-based AltaRock, which leases about 15,000 acres of Newberry land outside the boundary of the national volcanic monument from the U.S. Forest Service. By fall, the Energy Department could further narrow the field of potential sites from five to three.
“The competition is pretty stiff,” said Stowe. Sites in Idaho, Nevada, California and Utah remain in the running.
The three sites that advance to the next round would split about $30 million in Energy Department funding for planning and permitting over the next couple of years.
Then the Energy Department will choose a final site, where it would implement the lab over a stretch of at least five years, when research aims to perfect enhanced geothermal techniques and make it more efficient, Stowe said.
Partners say they have the only site on the side of an active volcano, where AltaRock has already conducted enhanced geothermal testing.
On Monday, representatives from AltaRock and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory led a tour of the site for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, a regional power planning body, answering questions from the crowd about the possible work at the site.
“Our resource is heat,” said Laura Nofziger, senior vice president and managing director at AltaRock Services LLC. But mining that resource requires flowing fluid through the rock, in cracks that aren’t so large that the water rushes through without heating up.
As a research site, the observatory would help test various techniques to make enhanced geothermal economically sustainable, for instance by improving drilling equipment and training.
“This is really a research project,” said Alain Bonneville, a laboratory fellow at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s earth systems science division.
If Newberry becomes the Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy, AltaRock would have injection and production wells, the underground reservoir, and information on how the site operates — data for investors to build a power plant there.
If Newberry does not become the research site, AltaRock would then determine what to do with its lease, Stowe said.
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