Researcher: Geothermal taking off as power source

Geothermal power is a small, but growing movement in the energy sector, and work coming out of central Utah could play a big role in just how big it becomes.

New research in Milford, Utah led by the University of Utah will study geothermal reservoirs. The university received $140 million from the U.S. Department of Energy for the Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy (FORGE) site.

John McLennan, a research scientist and associate professor with the Energy and Geoscience Institute at the University of Utah, shared his insights into the new facility and the potential for geothermal energy in the U.S. during an energy briefing Wednesday hosted by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce at the DoubleTree Hotel.

FORGE will be an underground lab that will drill wells in an effort to extract geothermal energy. Geothermal power can help with agriculture, aquaculture, space heating and more. The site is near the intersection of Interstate 70 and Interstate 15 in central Utah.

"We've gotten lots of support from the Department of Energy, the state of Utah and Beaver County," McLennan said.

Utah has three geothermal plants producing energy at the moment. Colorado does not have any, McLennan said. However, he pointed out that Colorado Mesa University heats and cools its buildings on campus using a geothermal system that includes seven well fields and 171,000 feet of pipes. He noted it could save the university upward of $1 million.

During his presentation Wednesday, McLennan pointed to the benefits and challenges of geothermal energy, noting that many of the areas that have used it are along the so-called "Ring of Fire" of the Pacific Rim or in areas with natural hot springs. He did say that it takes a great deal more water to create energy than oil, but it is a cleaner energy source.

However, the drilling can create a problem and he pointed to several failures over the past 40 years. He said new technology with drilling and connecting wells could have a positive impact on the industry, especially at the FORGE site.

The University of Utah has studied the site since 1980, particularly on seismic level as drilling can spur some activity. He said FORGE is in an area of low seismic activity and small populations of both animals and people.

As for its potential, McLennan said geothermal isn't in line to replace other forms of energy, but could be a nice supplement of power for communities around the country.

"It's not the same ballpark as natural gas, but I can envision a time when it produces 10% of our energy," he said. "But that's just me."

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