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Quakes Rattle Newberry Geothermal Hopes 

Could earthquakes in Switzerland throw a geothermal energy project in Central Oregon’s Newberry Crater area off the rails?

About a month ago AltaRock Energy got a $25 million grant (on top of an earlier $36 million) from the US Department of Energy toward development of a plant that will produce power by tapping natural heat deep beneath the Earth’s surface.

AltaRock’s process, called “enhanced geothermal,” involves drilling wells up to 10,000 feet deep, pumping cold water down them to create small cracks in the bedrock, then withdrawing heated water from these fissures to turn turbines. The Newberry plant is supposed to produce 30 megawatts of power initially and up to 120 megawatts eventually.

“Unlike conventional geothermal, which relies on subterranean pockets of hot water, proponents of enhanced geothermal systems say the technology is essentially location-neutral, meaning these wells could be sunk almost anywhere in the world,” the New York Times explained.

But enhanced geothermal technology is running into problems elsewhere in the world. AltaRock said yesterday that it was abandoning a similar project, the Geysers, in California, ostensibly because of drilling problems. That announcement came one day after the Swiss government announced it was shutting down a similar project by a different company because it had triggered small earthquakes.

“The [Swiss] project, led by Markus O. Häring, a former oilman, was suspended in late 2006 after it generated earthquakes that did no bodily harm but caused about $9 million in mostly minor damage to homes and other structures,” the Times reported. “Mr. Häring is to go to trial next week on criminal charges stemming from the project.”

Before AltaRock abandoned it, the DOE had started an investigation into the Geysers project in response to a Times story that said the Seattle-based startup company had failed to mention the Swiss earthquake problem in its seismic safety report.

The setbacks in Switzerland and California “are a serious blow to the hopes of environmentalists, entrepreneurs and investors who believe that advanced geothermal energy could substantially cut the world’s use of emissions-causing fossil fuels,” the Times wrote.

Plans to develop geothermal power at Newberry go back to at least 1997, when Davenport Resources of Greenwich, CT and Vulcan Power Co. of Bend formed a partnership to drill exploratory wells there, but have all fizzled because of either financial or technological problems.

There have been no known seismic impacts from AltaRock’s Newberry project yet, but before it sinks more millions into it the DOE might want to take a closer look.

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