Geothermal: Energy Right Under Our Feet

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YELLOWSTONE - The world's first national park -- Yellowstone -- is a place of stunning beauty and awesome animals.

But some of its most interesting sites are those holes into the earth reeking of sulfer where great geysers suddenly burst into the air.

That's why the first white men to stumble upon this Yellowstone region thought they'd found the place where hell meets earth. Actually it's just where geothermal power bubbles up from the earth.

Park geologist Hank Heasler stated it's the largest concentration of geysers and such anywhere. He said, "We have over 10,000 geothermal features in the park."

Hottest Hot Spot

Responsible for all that energy is America's biggest, hottest magma chamber right below Yellowstone.

One of the country's foremost geothermal authorities, David Blackwell of Southern Methodist University's Geothermal Lab, explained, "It's actually so big, it shows up on the maps we make of the United States as this big bullseye of heat."

This magma chamber generates so much energy, it could power tens of millions of American homes. Blackwell said, "It's potentially equivalent to something on the order of 10 to a hundred nuclear power plants."

Federal law forbids drilling to ever use Yellowstone's geothermal power. IF drilling were allowed, it could wipe out the beautiful geyser fields.

That's what Heasler said has happened in some locations like in Iceland where the country gets much of its power from geothermal. But he warned in some future extreme energy crunch, the U.S.could change its mind about preserving Yellowstone's geysers. He said Americans, the true owners of the park, might say, ".the power we can get from here is more important than the beauty and the wilderness aspect of Yellowstone."

But SMU's Blackwell said new technologies can prevent that day from ever coming because they can turn every region of the U.S. into geothermal energy producers.

Most of the country isn't blessed like Yellowstone or the area in California known as "The Geysers" where magma chambers are right below the surface. Blackwell said of The Geysers, "You drill a well there and just pure steam comes pouring out of the ground and you don't have to do anything except run it through a turbine."

Could Provide One-Fifth of America's Power

But now new technologies can use cooler water from closer to the surface and more easily fracture the rock to get to it and even enhance it, meaning geothermal power can be retrieved from all over the country. Blackwell stated if these new technologies are fully developed and deployed, "We can apply geothermal energy essentially anywhere in the United States."

Which also means it could someday make up as much as one-fifth of America's power, according to a recent M.I.T. study.

Some of the most fascinating research goes on in Texas, home to thousands of oil and gas wells.

Drilling's always been a risky business. You never know when you'll actually strike it rich -- and if you do -- how long the oil or gas will flow.

But one thing's true: you always hit lots of hot water on the way down, and new technologies can now turn that underground hot water -- or geo-fluid -- into geothermal power. Loy Sneary of Gulf Coast Green Energy explained, "When that gas well plays out, and they all will eventually, or you hit a dry hole, you can take the geo-fluid out of that and generate electricity for the next 30 to 40 years."

Would oil and gas companies go along? Sneary said they certainly would because, "It'll actually make the investment in those oil and gas wells much less risky, because they know at the end of the line, they'll be able to generate electricity."

CBN News ran into Sneary at Southern Methodist University where he was demonstrating a new hi-tech device called the Green Machine. "It can use the hot geo-fluid that comes up out of the ground, run it through our equipment and turn it into electricity that's emission-free, without utilizing any fuel. It's actually utilizing the heat that normally would have been wasted."

Green Power and a Green Machine

The Geothermal Lab at SMU wants the university to drill a well on campus and then pump the geo-fluids they hit through the Green Machine in a bid to supply about a twelfth of SMU's power. Or, as Maria Richards of the Geothermal Lab, put it, "To tap into the energy that's below us, and it's right there."

She explained geothermal energy is green and clean with no carbon footprint, and it's really secure. "Because a well in the ground really doesn't care if there's a hurricane over it or a tornado."

Richards pointed out geothermal power plants are also smaller than those using fossil fuels, and they're quieter.

Her SMU colleague, David Blackwell, praised just how green these plants are. "The power plants don't emit any kind of waste products." And he pointed out the hot water shot through those plants goes right back down into the ground to be used over and over in an endless geothermal loop.

John Dwyer of Koll Development Company has much the same dream of energy independence as SMU, but for a huge business park near Dallas called CentrePort.

He wants to use the geo-fluids that oil and gas drillers run into below Koll's property to eventually provide all the power for the businesses in the park. "Try to use that waste product instead of just throwing it away and disposing of it somewhere."

Saving 75% on Your Energy Bill?

Already the technology exists to use the geo-warmth of the earth to turn your home into a user of clean, green energy that'll slash your utility bills by as much as 75 percent.

That's what John Blackall of Blackall Mechanical says.

He installs geothermal systems at homes around the Dallas area.

His crews drill wells all around a property and then run pipes through them to carry water used to heat and cool the home down to a loopfield far inside the earth and back up again, using the ground's constant temperature to make the water cooler in the summer and hotter in the winter.

He showed CBN News a complicated unit he was installing in a millionaire's home outside Dallas. He said, "The earth being 60 to 65 degrees at 250 feet deep in north Texas, this unit -- no matter how hot it is outside -- is tricked into thinking it's a cool spring day."

But because the system costs so much up front, it takes customers several years to re-coup those costs in energy savings. Blackall said, "Currently there's up to a  $1,500 tax credit, but that's not much."

Blackall is a Christian believer who started to work with geothermal because he both wanted to help the environment and lower people's energy costs. But he's frustrated that pretty much only the well-to-do can afford these geothermal systems.

It's his dream that government will get really serious about giving such enormous tax breaks for geothermal, even the poorest Americans in the poorest apartment clusters can afford the systems. With such big tax breaks for a poor apartment complex, Blackall said, "We could put a community loop-field in. Those are the people who really need this. They're the people who can't afford high electric bills."

Relieving the Grid

He pointed out not only could geothermal save money, but if enough systems are eventually installed in a region, "Geothermal will drastically reduce the kilowatt demand on the grid."

That matters in a region like north Texas that has only one nuclear plant, because all the rest of the power has to come from burning fossil fuels. So extensive use of geothermal could both cut pollution and the emissions that environmentalists worry add to global warming. It could also be another major step towards America becoming energy self-sufficient.

There's another big reason to develop geothermal, according to its advocates. It's reliably constant, unlike solar and wind power. SMU's Blackwell explained, "It's not like the wind or the sun which blow or shine occasionally or some of the time. Geothermal goes all the time."

Maria Richards, Blackwell's colleague in SMU's Geothermal Lab, pointed out one way a particular area could make geothermal reliably constant over hundreds of years: "If you were to develop it on a quadrant basis.say a square mile.and then you first developed one-fourth of it: you could have a power plant extracting the heat from that first one-fourth for about 25 years, move it to the next quadrant for the next 25 years and so on, then come back a hundred years later, that first quadrant will have reheated naturally."

The Forever Power Source

Which is why Blackwell said, "You could potentially make geothermal last essentially forever if you set up the systems correctly."

And mankind can never use it all up. Blackwell pointed out the earth's interior is constantly generating an amazingly huge amount of heat. "Two percent of it is still several thousand times the annual use of energy in the United States."

This geothermal advocate dreams of a day when "it can actually replace natural gas and fuel oil as the heating component of society, and other forms of generating electricity."

His goal is that the U.S. will work in the decades ahead towards exploiting enough geothermal power to supply the energy needs of 20 to 30 million Americans. "That would be the equivalent of replacing 20 or 30 large power plants.coal-fired power plants or nuclear power plants."

In fact, Blackwell said if all the nations of the earth worked full-bore to develop geothermal resources, this earthy source of energy could eventually meet the power needs of 75 to 90 percent of all the people on the planet.

*Originally broadcast November 17, 2008.

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Paul Strand

Paul Strand

CBN News Sr. Washington Correspondent

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