Newberry Vies for Geothermal Lab Spot


(Photo above: AltaRock regularly hosts professional development field trips to the Newberry EGS Demonstration field site | courtesy of AltaRock Energy, Inc.)


Site near Volcano Monument in Running for National Research Facility

Land around Newberry Volcano near La Pine could be the setting for groundbreaking research into the viability of engineered geothermal systems’ ability to meet future power needs, if the proposed site makes the final shortlist for a state-of-the-art national lab.

The location is one of five under consideration as the potential home of the Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy (FORGE) – an ambitious major effort by the US Department of Energy to establish a single national facility for exploring new technologies for extracting and producing energy from enhanced geothermal systems (EGS).

The consortium behind the local candidate is Newberry Geothermal Energy (NEWGEN) a collaborative team of researchers and specialists from Pacific Northwest National LaboratoryOregon State UniversityAltaRock Energy, Inc. (which leases the federal land being evaluated and has conducted testing at the site for the last several years) GE Global Research and international energy company Statoil.

All the potential sites selected have undergone planning and conceptual geologic modeling to this point and a maximum of three that make it to the next phase – with a decision expected by the fall – will split some $30 million in government funding over two years before a final determination on where to site the lab is made, with a consequent major investment in implementation over a minimum five-year period.

Enhanced geothermal energy involves injecting clean water into natural hot rock formation systems beneath the Earth’s surface in a controlled manner. The water picks up heat which comes to the surface through cracks and is extracted to turn electric turbines and create power, before being re-injected into the ground as part of an underground reservoir-fed loop.

But current extraction technology in the field is relatively expensive, and wherever the  FORGE facility is centered will become a hotbed for research and development as part of the initiative to make EGS a viable power producer through technological innovation towards developing large-scale, economically sustained heat exchange systems.

And the stakes could be highly significant, with DoE estimates predicting that if only less than two per cent of the country’s total EGS potential could be meaningfully tapped it could satisfy US power needs many times over, without needing to sap finite and dwindling fossil fuel resources.

Today, two-thirds of the electricity generated in the U.S. comes from fossil fuels, including 39 per cent from coal. Proponents say geothermal energy offers one of the most promising alternatives to fossil fuels for reducing carbon dioxide emissions while providing a stable base load energy supply – rather than the intermittent solar and wind-based approach. It is also renewable, with a small environmental footprint, and emits no greenhouse gases.

Construction and operation of the FORGE lab in Deschutes County would also create around 300 temporary construction and 100 permanent employment positions.

Regarding NEWGEN’s selection prospects, AltaRock spokesman David Stowe said: “We face stiff competition from sites in California, Idaho, Utah and Nevada, but logically we have a very good shot. We feel we have the strongest team and the site ticks all the boxes, with the right kind of rock, suitable temperature and existing infrastructure.

“A lot of research has been carried out already, and the NEWGEN core team includes experts in EGS research and development, commercial power generation, engineering and the hard sciences that can lead the project forward.

“We have the data and have also conducted educational outreach initiatives in both the local and scientific communities which have allayed any initial concerns and seen the proposal garner widespread support, with the prospect of diverse benefits including job creation and academic opportunities.”

Stowe added that with its long history of geothermal exploration, the NEWGEN site on the western flank of the Newberry Volcano offers significant advantages for EGS research and development.

It was strategically chosen by the project team for a number of reasons, including

having undergone more than 30 years of exploration and study providing extensive background data for the area and its ability to meet all DoE requirements for temperature, depth and permeability.

Much of the necessary infrastructure was already in place, along with permits and environmental monitoring plans which could save tens of millions of dollars in startup costs and allow a wide variety of EGS research and development to begin expediently.

AltaRock and DoE have to date invested significantly in EGS research and development at Newberry, with two 10,000-feet-deep geothermal wells already having been constructed, and well stimulation activities carried out in 2014 which successfully generated an EGS fracture network in previously impermeable rock.

Stowe observed that the Newberry site was also easily accessible from Oregon State University’s main campus in Corvallis and only 28 miles from its Cascades campus in Bend, creating the further potential for faculty research, student internships and community engagement.

He added: “Significant geological, geophysical, geochemical, hydrological and micro seismic data has already been collected at Newberry, and further work at the NEWGEN site will aid in developing advanced modeling scenarios for EGS research and development.

“There are in place some of the most sensitive sophisticated seismic arrays around, which means we can detect down to an elk walking on the site.

“Such seismic information is also publicly available online, and being on National Forest lands we are also subject to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) which adds even more assurance regarding checks and balances and stewardship of the environment.

“If we were to be the eventual winning site for the FORGE lab, we would be at the leading edge of research towards producing clean/renewable energy offering 24/7 base load power.

“Central Oregon would additionally benefit from the creation of high-end jobs and incomes and we think this would be a great fit for the area and bring international attention.”

About Newberry Volcano
The Newberry Volcano is a large forest-covered shield volcano with a caldera containing two large alpine lakes that are popular recreation destinations. The volcano was identified as a potential site for geothermal energy development several decades ago, and geothermal exploration began in the 1970s. Although geothermal resources were identified inside the caldera, resistance to industrial development led to creation of the Newberry National Volcanic Monument (NNVM) in 1990 and all geothermal leases were moved outside the monument boundary. Stakeholders from industry, government and the public were involved in creation of the Monument, and dedication of NNVM solved critical issues for protecting the scenic and recreational values in the area while providing for continued geothermal research and development outside of the caldera.

Since 2010, AltaRock Energy has conducted ongoing research at the site. In 2012, a network of 15 seismometers was deployed at the field site, making Newberry Volcano one of the world’s most well monitored volcanoes.

The FORGE Project
To turn the potential of geothermal energy into cost-competitive commercial applications, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is establishing FORGE — the Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy. FORGE will be a dedicated site where scientists and engineers can develop and test new technologies for Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS). Research conducted at FORGE will advance commercialization and deployments of EGS, as well as provide immediate benefits to the existing geothermal industry.

The Proposed Newberry Volcano Site
Newberry Geothermal Energy (NEWGEN) is one of five FORGE proposals being reviewed by DOE. Its site at the Newberry Volcano in Central Oregon is the only one located on a volcano. Here, hot rock is closer to the surface, making it easier to drill wells and carry out enhanced geothermal system (EGS) research. This site is also unique for its existing EGS reservoir, many decades of previous geothermal exploration and research and its established infrastructure.

About AltaRock Energy
Founded in 2007 and headquartered in Seattle, AltaRock Energy is a full-service geothermal energy technology and services company. The team includes industry experts that specialize in geology, geochemistry, hydrology, engineering, operations, management, and finance. It has been working on geothermal research at Newberry since 2010.

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Simon Mather — CBN Feature Writer

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