Huge Geothermal Power Project Could Cause Quakes


Photo via Amer-Tech

That's not some obscure way of saying the deep-drilling geothermal project could make waves--though come to think of it, it'd likely do that too. No, the massive new experiment to harness geothermal energy that's under way north of San Francisco could literally end up causing real-life earthquakes. In fact, the method being used by AltaRock Energy, the company overseeing the project, has done exactly that before. The first project of its kind was undertaken in Basel, Switzerland in 2006. But as Markus O. Haring, the oilman turned clean energy prospector, was leading his company in drilling deep into the bedrock, he triggered an earthquake, causing damage to local buildings and scaring the crap out of the townspeople. The project was shut down.

Now, AltaRock is doing it again. The remarkable thing here is that they're evidently using nearly the exact same method as Haring did in Switzerland--they'll drill two miles deep down into the earth, fracture the rocks there, and tap into the energy released. And the company has already generated heaps of funding from the likes venture capitalists, the State Dept., even Google.

But according to a report from the New York Times, AltaRock knew full well about, but failed to mention the specifics of the little woopsie in Switzerland when seeking project approval.

But in a report on seismic impact that AltaRock was required to file, the company failed to mention that the Basel program was shut down because of the earthquake it caused. AltaRock claimed it was uncertain that the project had caused the quake, even though Swiss government seismologists and officials on the Basel project agreed that it did. Nor did AltaRock mention the thousands of smaller earthquakes induced by the Basel project that continued for months after it shut down.
In other words, it's a risky venture. Geothermal is certainly an appealing form of clean energy--it's constant, in vast supply, and doesn't turn off, like solar and wind do. And many feel that the breakthrough for the technology will come with bigger projects that dig deeper, not the smaller scale geyser and steam vent tapping operations we have in operation today.

But is risking an earthquake, especially in San Francisco, which has had more than its share and is already vulnerable, worth the clean energy payoff?

It's hard to say. The New York Times says that

According to a 2007 geothermal report financed by the Energy Department, advanced geothermal power could in theory produce as much as 60,000 times the nation’s annual energy usage.
That's a tough number to disregard, and the US has already expressed interest in further developing geothermal technology. And AltaRock claims that it has chosen an area with only small faults for its operation in order to minimize the risk. However, their shady evasion of the Basel event is worrisome--we all want clean energy as soon as possible. But not if it means recklessly putting people in danger.

More on Geothermal Power
Geothermal Energy: Renewables' Poor Cousin
4000 Megawatts of US Geothermal Power in Development, Sector Has Grown by 20% This Year
The Tipping Point for Geothermal Heating and Cooling?

Tags: Alternative Energy | Clean Energy | Geothermal Power