Monday, 04 March 2024

Geothermal project review under way

THE GEYSERS – A decision to delay a new geothermal project in The Geysers until further study is completed appears to have come directly from the top of the federal Department of Energy.

The decision regarding AltaRock Energy's engineered geothermal systems (EGS) project – scheduled to take place on a federal land leaded by the Bureau of Land Management to the Northern California Power Agency (NCPA) – came down earlier this month, as Lake County News has reported.

AltaRock, based in Sausalito and Seattle, plans to drill thousands of feet into the earth and fracture bedrock and inject water, which create steam for geothermal production.

It had already begun drilling into an old well in preparation to start the fracturing – also called “stimulation” – in August.

But a New York Times article late last month and ensuing media coverage in the interim pointed to the similarity between AltaRock's technology and that which was used on a project in Basel, Switzerland, in 2006. In that case, a company – not AltaRock – drilled into a fault and triggered a 3.4-magnitude earthquake and more than 3,500 more over the following year.

Dr. Ernie Majer, a scientist and geophysics department deputy division director for the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said the decision to halt the project while more study was done came directly from his old boss, Dr. Steven Chu, now head of the Department of Energy.

“It came from the top, it came from Dr. Chu,” Majer told Lake County News.

Chu, Majer said, didn't want to let the project go forward until it was reviewed, and wanted the community fully informed all throughout the process.

Last fall, AltaRock received more than $6 million in funding from the Department of Energy funding for The Geysers project. It also has amassed another $30 million in venture capital.

The project moved very quickly through the approval process with only a month-long public comment process and one community meeting earlier this spring.

On June 8, Rich Burns, a Lake County resident and the field manager for the Ukiah BLM's field office, signed a finding of no significant impact on the project, noting, “the process will induce seismicity that is fully expected to be within the range of present levels (both frequency and magnitude) experienced at Anderson Springs, the closest community to the Project.”

That document also stated, “While it is acknowledged that the proposed project involves some uncertainty regarding seismic impacts, the mitigation and monitoring that will be required by BLM will mitigate these uncertainties to a level of insignificance. Drilling methods and associated activities for this project are typical of existing processes in the Geysers Geothermal Field/Geysers Management Area.”

Officials with the BLM, which needed to approve a federal permit for the company to move forward, stated that AltaRock's didn't disclose to them what happened with the technology in Basel.

In turn, AltaRock's executives have said they withheld no information, and that the Basel project is well known in the industry. They also told Lake County News that the Department of Energy had asked for more information, which the company provided, and they expected to changes to their project schedule, which called for fracturing to begin in August.

Earlier this month, BLM told Lake County News that they and the Department of Energy decided to do more study on the project.

This past week Tiffany Edwards, deputy press secretary for the Department of Energy, provided an agency statement to Lake County News about the decision.

“The Department is conducting additional analysis of the question of induced seismicity, and specifically comparing induced seismicity at the Geysers to induced seismicity at Basel, Switzerland to determine whether there should be additional safeguards beyond what is already planned for the Geysers site,” the statement said. “No stimulation activity will be funded by the Department until we've completed this additional comparative analysis and provided a final NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] determination.”

Edwards did not respond to Lake County News' request for an estimate on how long the NEPA determination might take.

The written statement Edwards provided further noted that the geothermal technology in question has “enormous potential to provide renewable baseload energy to heat and power homes and businesses. That's why industry and scientific leaders, with the support of the Department of Energy, are working to develop better technologies that will help reduce the cost of these systems, including the cost of drilling and pipes that can withstand hot, corrosive fluids deep within the earth.”

The statement concluded, “Ultimately, we believe that scientific innovation could resolve those issues, and we can develop better ways to manage the deep reservoir to maximize heat production. The Department's support of enhanced geothermal systems is focused on addressing these obstacles.”

Geothermal isn't the only type of energy production raising concerns about earthquakes. Recent reports from Cleburne, Texas, have linked to a series of small quakes – the first in well over a century – to natural gas drilling.

A USA Today report explains that a process called “fracking” is being used in Texas. Like local geothermal production, it involves injecting water deep into the earth. Fracking is meant to fracture shale layers in an effort to release the natural gas.

Officials want more openness in process

Majer said he and other scientists – US Geological Survey seismologist David Oppenheimer and Mark Zoback, a Stanford University geophysics professor – traveled to Washington, DC earlier this month to meet with Department of Energy officials to discuss the project.

He said they met with Dr. Steven E. Koonin, Chu's under secretary for science, to go over the project. Majer said Koonin indicated he wants real-time seismic monitoring in place for the community.

He also attended the community meeting held by the BLM in Middletown in April to discuss the project. Majer said the community had clear concerns about the project.

Then the articles in the New York Times and elsewhere began coming out, said Majer.

“One of the big concerns was how is this different or is it different from what happened in Basel, Switzerland?” Majer said.

He said the Department of Energy has asked AltaRock to write a document and explain how their project would differ from Basel, and explore if the technology could cause similar seismic issues here. “If so, how are you going to deal with it?”

He said AltaRock – which has approached him at one time to be an advisor, a request he declined due to the inherent conflict of interest – is now in the process of providing that report.

Majer said the Department of Energy will have that report considered by three independent reviewers. If they agree with AltaRock that the risk is minimal, the Department of Energy will let them go forward. If the findings are different, the agency likely will request more study.

Once that review is done, the information will be released to the public, said Majer. “Dr. Chu wants everything open and above board.”

Majer, who did he thesis at The Geysers, is very familiar with the earthquake activity there.

The frequent earthquakes in the area are the result of geothermal production, he said.

For many years industry working in the area denied they were causing the earthquakes, but when study after study showed a direct correlation between geothermal production there, primarily the injection of water into fissures, “They just couldn't deny it any more,” Majer said.

Majer said Basel is geographically different, stress-wise, from The Geysers, so there isn't a reason for comparing the two areas. Europeans have used the EGS technology with some success, he noted.

He said the focus has been on the initial injections planned in AltaRock's project, but Majer suggested the more important question is what will happen in the years ahead as injection continues. That should lead to a closer examination of whether or not there will be an increase in the seismic risk, which exists everywhere.

The assertion that's been made about the project that the biggest quakes it will cause only will be 2.3 in magnitude is “ridiculous,” said Majer.

However, he said creating large fractures, causing major seismicity, actually will defeat AltaRock's purpose, because larger fractures won't heat water for geothermal production as well.

He said AltaRock needs to address the concerns and not just do damage control. The company has claimed some information about its operations is proprietary, he added.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory does seismic monitoring at The Geysers, said Majer, where they currently have a monitoring array for Calpine and NCPA.

That array currently has 23 real-time monitoring stations, and six more stations will be added to cover AltaRock's project, Majer said.

The array is far more sensitive than the US Geological Survey's. In July, it recorded 11 earthquakes measuring 3.0 in magnitude and above, compared to five found in the US Geological Survey's records.

The Department of Energy funds various projects to increase energy production, and Majer said he believes AltaRock is out in front of such projects in terms of time schedule. “This is the first project that the Department of Energy wanted to succeed.”

Majer said there is a lot of potential for geothermal production.

“There's so much more heat down there that's to be gotten out,” he said.

E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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