Volcanoes: Renewable Energy's Next Big Eruption

Energy developers will be testing the geothermal potential of Oregon's Newberry Volcano this summer.
An aerial view of the Newberry caldera in Oregon. Could volcanoes be our next renewable energy source? (Photo: globaltechnologyblog.com)
Jan 18, 2012· 1 MIN READ
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

Renewable energy, for all its planet-saving prowess, can be a bit fickle. A windmill without blustery gusts is about as effective as solar panels on a cloudy day. Even hydropowered dams, renewable energy's workhorse, can have trouble clocking in during extended drought.

Luckily for energy companies, there's a new kid in town. Earlier this week, geothermal energy developers announced summer plans to pump 24 million gallons of water into the side of the Newberry caldera, a dormant volcano in Central Oregon. The goal? To see if the superheated water will be able rise to the surface fast enough to be converted into energy.

Said Susan Petty, president of Seattle-based AltaRock Energy, to the AP: "We know the heat is there. The big issue is can we circulate enough water through the system to make it economic."

Normally, the capital costs of exploring a new geothermal energy source are prohibitively high. The expensive examination of the properties of the rock, such as permeability and hardness, and properties of the water, such as corrosiveness, make predicting the potential of a given site difficult. Even when an optimal location is found, it can take a decade for it to develop into a working geothermal plant.

To help allay the costs, the Department of Energy matched the $21.5 million investment of Google and other private investors with an eye towards geothermal's longterm potential.

Hydroshearing, the process of drilling wells and pumping water to create tiny fractures in the rock, is similar to fracking, which scientists beieve may have caused recent earthquakes in Arkansas and Ohio. While experts say that the Newberry caldera is located in a seismic "dead zone," energy officials will be keeping close tabs on any aberrant earthquake activity in the area.

Geothermal energy isn't the only energy source resistant to nature's whims. Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC), which converts solar radiation into energy power, is similarly reliable—and expensive. But as fossil fuel prices continue to rise, both are starting to become economically viable for energy companies.