Enhanced Geothermal Energy and Man-Made Earthquakes (Part 2)

As described in a previous post, Sausalito-based AltaRock Energy is drilling a Lake County test well aimed at producing energy by utilizing a technology called Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS). AltaRock’s project is on federal land leased by the Northern California Power Agency (NCPA) on a ridge just above the community of Anderson Springs, CA. According to an article published July 15 in the Lake County News, however, “concerns about the technology AltaRock is using has caused the Bureau of Land Management [BLM] and the Department of Energy [DOE] to decide to conduct further study before the work moves forward.”

In light of the earthquake activity caused by a similar EGS project in Basel, Switzerland in 2006, the question to be studied is: might EGS engender serious earthquakes here in California?

Anderson Springs is several winding roads, a stream that collects in a community pool, and perhaps a couple of hundred people. It sits about five miles west of Middletown, CA, just off Route 175 in a wooded valley surrounded by “the largest geothermal power project in the world” (see Calpine’s superlative in the photo above).

Search for this tiny settlement on Google Maps, however, and you’ll be inexplicably routed to the wrong location about the same distance northeast of Middletown on Route 29. Google compounds its error by labeling the correct location “Castle Rock Springs.” What makes this error curious (and increases pulse rates among conspiracy theorists) is that in 2008, google.org—the venture capital arm of google.com—invested millions in AltaRock’s geothermal power project.

In Obama’s administration, non-fossil fuel energy sources have gotten much more attention than they did in the Cheney era. With Obama’s appointment of Nobel laureate Dr. Steven Chu, former director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, to Secretary of the Department of Energy (DOE)…and with Dr. Steven Koonin, former provost of Caltech and chief scientist of BP, installed as a DOE’s Under-Secretary for Science, real scientists are now dealing with the energy issue. Prior to the election, at the August 2008 National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas, Chu sat with AltaRock’s CEO Don O’Shei and Dan Reicher, director of climate and energy initiatives at Google.org. Their conversation is worth listening to.

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EGS technology, if safe, could inject a massive amount of energy into the grid. With that in the offing, we can be sure that the study in question will be fast-tracked. I do not know Dr. Chu, but I have dealt with Dr. Koonin many times and know him to be brilliant and pragmatic.

News of the BLM/DOE review was good news for the Anderson Springs Community Alliance (ASCA), a community group concerned about the increase in local earthquakes since large-scale water injection began in the late 90’s. The review appears to have trumped a June 2009 BLM determination that the AltaRock project “will not result in significant impacts to the quality of the human environment.”

ASCA president Jeffrey Gospe explained by telephone that even with the DOE/BLM review, AltaRock will continue some operations. “They can redrill the old [NCPA] well, but they do not have a permit to hydrofracture the bedrock.” AltaRock’s project, Gospe opined, had been rushed through without a full review. But with journalist James Glanz’s articles in The New York Times and a June 29, 2009, Scientific American article entitled, “How Does Geothermal Drilling Trigger Earthquakes?”,  greatly increased public awareness has led to, Gospe supposed, DOE’s decision to ask for further review. “Steven Chu used to work with Jim Glanz,” Gospe said, “so DOE just wants to make sure that they are doing the right thing. We are not against energy projects. We just want to be sure it is safe.”

I have been unable to verify whether Glanz actually worked with Chu, but he does have a Ph.D. in astrophysical sciences from Princeton University.

More posts to follow.

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