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« A voice from the ivory tower | Main | Pielke Jr in Foreign Policy mag »

Fracking for heat

An article in E&E Greenwire reports that a start-up company in the USA is about to test the use of fracking techniques to access geothermal energy sources:

The company has finished setting up seismic sensors on U.S. Forest Service land near the base of Newberry Volcano, a national monument site about 20 miles south of Bend, Ore. The volcano hasn't erupted in 1,300 years and shows no signs of activity today, but the Earth's heat finds its way to the surface in other ways.

Part of the area's allure to visitors comes from the hot springs at Paulina Lake and East Lake, where the water is warm but not too warm for bathing. About 2 miles underground, though, the temperatures climb above 600 degrees Fahrenheit -- about as hot as the Geysers, where a set of power plants in Northern California generate 1,300 megawatts of electricity, more than at any other hot spot on Earth.

AltaRock will inject 24 million gallons of water at roughly 46 degrees Fahrenheit into these hot rocks to build a large network of small cracks. If all goes according to plan, the company will be able to circulate water through the rock and suck it out of newly drilled wells, scalding hot and ready for use in an eventual power plant.

The eyes of environmentalists all around the world will be lighting up at a new threat to be protested, a new scare to bring in the donations.

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Reader Comments (27)

There is nothing new in fracking for geothermal energy. It has always been practised in hot, dry rock projects. Even in the UK, e.g. the Camborne project at Rosemanhowes in Cornwall way back in the 1980's used fracking techniques to induce both permeability between injection and extraction boreholes and increase the surface area for heat exchange between the rock and fluid.

Aug 8, 2012 at 8:11 AM | Unregistered CommenterPaul Dennis

My understanding is that when the earth's core is no longer molten, the magnetic field will go and the atmosphere will float off into space. Sounds like prematurely cooling it down would be suicidal. I'm surprised the greens haven't latched onto this one yet.

Aug 8, 2012 at 8:19 AM | Unregistered CommenterDavid C

Oh dear, the poor dears won't know what to do!
Fracking = Baaaadddd
Geothermal = Gooooddd.

Aug 8, 2012 at 8:28 AM | Unregistered CommenterAdam Gallon

David! Shhhh...!

Aug 8, 2012 at 8:29 AM | Unregistered CommenterRoger Carr


Did anyone else hear the main BBC TV news yesterday when it said there would be billions spent and thousands of new jobs created in the energy industry - on oil and gas? Was I dreaming?

Aug 8, 2012 at 8:47 AM | Unregistered CommenterDavid Schofield

@Paul Dennis


I remember the Cambourne School of Mines Hot Rocks Project. I was peripherally involved, as I worked for DEC, (Digital Equipment), at the time and I installed a DEC mini at the drill site for monitoring and analysis.


They operated from an old quarry, near Falmouth. They sank two bores using standard oil rig equipment, and turned, (slanted), the holes underground so they would finish up at depth with the two holes adjacent. They had a lot of problems with wear on the drill bits, because they were drilling through granite. I remember seeing a row of drill cutting heads lined up outside their portacabin office/lab , with all the cutting points worn to smooth nubs.

As I remember, they exploded a charge at the bottom of the hole to fracture the rocks and improve flow, but unfortunately they did too good a job, and they "lost" too much of the water they pumped down, as leakage at the fracture zone, and only got a small percentage returned to the surface. They closed down shortly after.

It was a good try though!



Aug 8, 2012 at 8:48 AM | Unregistered CommenterGrumpy Granddad

A spin-off company from the Hot Rocks project is GeoScience and they submitted evidence re induced seismic events related to shale:

All injection and extraction of fluids from ground formations has the potential to initiate seismic activity. It is certainly nothing new. It was considered as a possible means of major quake mitigation, in that smaller quakes can be induced rather than one large one, e.g. San Andreas Fault.

In the UK if the proposed threshold is introduced, the exceptionally low level may open the door to preventing all kinds of activity from quarrying to construction, transport to shale gas extraction. It will have profound influence on geothermal and CCS.

The low threshold could also be a two-edged sword in that it there is a slim possibility of it being used to prevent construction of wind farms or their operation if sufficient vibration is evident.

Aug 8, 2012 at 9:08 AM | Unregistered CommenterJonathan Drake

Jonathan, As an aside, is there any link between what are now considered to be mini-earthquakes and what was always known as "subsidence" encountered in coal mining areas? I seem to remember a 40 mph speed limit for all trains between Birmingham and Wolverhampton for that reason, if it's not still in force in some way or other.

Aug 8, 2012 at 9:35 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn in France

Good Lord, drilling denialists? Shurely shome mishtake.

Aug 8, 2012 at 10:03 AM | Unregistered Commenterdearieme

I don't know if there is a speed limit in the region although the last time I went on a train in that area it was certainly slow compared to other routes.

One thing I didn't mention is that it is also claimed that large dams, such as used for hydro generation can produce micro-seismic events due to the mass of water. Presumably the varying mass will cause events when loading and unloading.

Aug 8, 2012 at 10:16 AM | Unregistered CommenterJonathan Drake

Early formation fracturing techniques employed explosives. As far as I know, those methods haven't been used in a long time. Hydraulic fracturing is far less violent, very safe, and more effective. It generally goes unnoticed at the surface from the point of view of seismic events.

Recent USA study:

But although earthquakes seem to be associated with wells, Frohlich’s study did not find that all wells were associated with earthquakes. Of the 161 wells in the study area with significant and sustained injections (defined as 150,000 barrels of water per month), 90% had no nearby earthquakes. Among those that did, the injections had been going on for more than a year in most cases.

Aug 8, 2012 at 10:40 AM | Unregistered CommenterJonathan Drake

Particularly with Al Gore being given airtime to repeat his claim that the temperature 2 miles down is not 600C but "millions of degree". On such nonsense is the entire Luddite movement based.

Aug 8, 2012 at 11:01 AM | Unregistered CommenterNeil Craig

Green guilt ,what about Green Smuggness and Arrogance.

Aug 8, 2012 at 11:02 AM | Unregistered CommenterJamspid

Following is a rather hyped-up piece of journalism, but interesting, on an Icelandic geothermal well.

Aug 8, 2012 at 11:28 AM | Registered CommenterPharos

@ Grumpy Granddad and Jonathan Drake

Thanks for that. I visited the project once, I think in the early 1980's and you're right, now I think about it, they did use explosives with the result they lost too much of the injected water and recovered little. I have an interesting book about the project called Heat Mining by Armistead and Tester (?).

They were drilling into the Cornubian batholith at Rosemanhowes quarry which was just outside of Falmouth. It was a reasonable target because of the high heat flow in the area.

GeoScience was spun off from the project. One of my former students ended up working for them.

Aug 8, 2012 at 12:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterPaul Dennis

Geothermal has promise but has high maintenance costs, depending on the rocks from which the heat is drawn. A geothermal plant in California, close to the Salton Sea, is barely breaking even due to the highly corrosive nature of the high temperature water eating its way through the heat exchangers.
I remember the Cornwall attempt by CSM which had a funding problem, from GB Government who wanted instant returns, and the required depth of the drilling to get a high enough temperature. Drilling techniques and equipment are noq better so another attempt might be a good idea.

Aug 8, 2012 at 12:13 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Marshall

This presentation document is worth a flick through. They make analogy between hydro-sheering and earthquakes. There are also maps and 3D model of micro-seismic magnitude:

Hydraulic fracturing is misrepresented by using 2D drawing.

They suggest geothermal energy as a by-product of hydrocarbon extraction. Oil companies supplying geothermal energy as a penance?

Aug 8, 2012 at 1:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterJonathan Drake

Remember all those wonderful Green jobs?

"Prisoners paid £3 a day to work at call centre that has fired other staff
Becoming Green, which took on prisoners for 'work experience', says dismissals 'part of normal call centre environment'
After establishing an arrangement with minimum security HMP Prescoed late last year, roofing and environmental refitting company Becoming Green has taken on a staff of 23 prisoners. Currently 12 are being paid just 6% of the minimum wage."

Aug 8, 2012 at 1:15 PM | Unregistered Commenterartwest

If fraccing wasn't safe, green energy companies would not be about to frac sandstone aquifers beneath central Manchester and elswhere:

3km seems very shallow for 100C water, elsewhere it is reported that the Cheshire basin geothermal gradient is 20C per km. Good luck to them, though reading between the lines subsidies are involved.

the old UK hot dry rock program

Aug 8, 2012 at 1:17 PM | Unregistered Commenterarkleseizure

Sorry, forgot link:

Aug 8, 2012 at 1:17 PM | Unregistered Commenterartwest

Vision. Gleick and Hansen calling me on behalf of Becoming Green.

Aug 8, 2012 at 1:47 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlan Reed

I seem to remember a 40 mph speed limit for all trains between Birmingham and Wolverhampton for that reason, if it's not still in force in some way or other.

Aug 8, 2012 at 9:35 AM | John in France

South of Birmingham on the M6 is a stretch of motorway that was like riding a fairground ride caused by mining subsidence, The mining company paid for a complete rebuild and have carried on mining and will pay out again when it reappears.

Aug 8, 2012 at 3:14 PM | Registered CommenterBreath of Fresh Air

The key is a good name.



"All Natural Fracking"


Aug 8, 2012 at 3:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterBruce

Jonathan Drake,
Thanks for your observation about the ludicrously low seismic limits imposed on frakking. Logically the same limits should apply across the board, whatever the source.
From my limited understanding, the limits are so low that even a heavy truck on a nearby road could breach them! Maybe HS2 would fail? Doncha just love the law of unintended consequences??!!

Aug 8, 2012 at 10:07 PM | Unregistered CommenterMikeH

No, no geothermal is OK, no really! Australian $180,000/yr (part time) Climate Commisioner and Panasonic Chair of Sustainability at Macquarie University has skin in the game:

It does seem a bit like pulling teeth to get it to work but Flannery says pulling teeth from corpses before cremating is easy to keep mercury from killing the rest of us.

Aug 9, 2012 at 4:41 AM | Unregistered CommenterBetapug

This fracking scheme is brilliant. Perhaps in the future a lot of geothermal energy can be extracted by this technique. An additional benefit to mankind, if this can be done on a large enough scale, might also be to cool down magma chambers before they explode. As Yellowstone is due to destroy the US sometime in the next hundred thousand years or so perhaps putting as much effort into these schemes as we put into wars might be a good idea.

Aug 9, 2012 at 9:17 AM | Unregistered Commenterjohn

Actually in this particular case I would be a bit worried if I lived nearby. It is well known that increasing hydrostatic pressure can release strains in fractures and cause at least minor earthquakes (up to M=7.0). Normal fracking is pretty safe in this respect since it is by definition used in rocks without fractures, and "tight" shales are typically found in seismically quiet areas.
Geothermal power on the other hand is, also by definition, found in seismically active areas, and even pumping back the "used" water has been fouind to cause minor quakes in Iceland. It should be noted that the hot water/steam used for geothermal power usually contains a lot of corrosive and poisonous compounds, so the heat is normally extracted in heat exchangers and the cool water the dispised off, often down disposal wells.

Aug 10, 2012 at 8:17 AM | Unregistered Commentertty

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