Google Warms to West Virginia's Vast Geothermal Potential

A Google-funded project has discovered a large geothermal resource under West Virginia that could more than double the electrical generation capacity of the high-profile coal state.

The research, carried out by the Southern Methodist University and funded with a $481,500 grant from Google's philanthropic arm, found that there is 78 percent more geothermal energy under the state than originally estimated.

The researchers calculated that if 2 percent of the available geothermal energy could be harnessed, the state could produce up to 18,890 megawatts (MW) of clean energy.

The study was conducted with more detailed mapping and more data points than had been used in previous research. For example, 1,455 new thermal data points were added to existing geothermal maps using oil, gas and water wells.

The research team found that most of the high-temperature points are located in the eastern part of the state.

"The presence of a large, baseload, carbon-neutral and sustainable energy resource in West Virginia could make an important contribution to enhancing the U.S. energy security and for decreasing CO2 emissions," the report concluded.

Western Virginia is not a tectonically active zone, which has traditionally been seen as a requirement for economically viable geothermal power production and has resulted in most existing geothermal sites in the U.S. being located in the west of the country.

However, engineers reckon that emerging techniques could be used to harvest geothermal energy locked in tectonically stable regions. For example, pioneering technologies could be used to harvest hot geothermal fluids, along with oil or gas from the same well. Enhanced geothermal systems are also increasingly being used, in which fluids are injected into rock, replacing natural hydrothermal convection.

The discovery, while promising, is still dwarfed by the geothermal resources available in the western states. Nevada, for example, has 146,298MW of enhanced geothermal capacity that could be exploited at two per cent recovery rate, according to a 2006 MIT report.

According to the Energy Information Administration, West Virginia currently has an electrical generating capacity of 16,350MW, but 97 percent of that capacity is currently provided by coal-fired power plants.

Google, which is a heavy user of electricity in its vast data centres, is no stranger to geothermal research and has already invested more than $10 million in the development of enhanced geothermal systems as part of its high-profile project to develop renewable energy that is cheaper than coal.

This article originally appeared at BusinessGreen.com and is reprinted with permission.

Image courtesy of Southern Methodist University.