Google.org’s $10.25 million (U.S.) investments in AltaRock Energy Inc. and Potter Drilling Inc. brings much-needed attention to the potential of enhanced geothermal systems, and the goal of tapping geothermal heat resources almost anywhere on the plant. AltaRock is trying to perfect the process of fracturing rock, an ambitious engineering feat that would allow geothermal developers to create the necessary conditions for a geothermal power plant almost anywhere electricity is demanded. Potter is adapting drilling techiques from the oil and gas industry through the development of new drilling technology that uses high-pressure fluid to bore through hard rock.
If enhanced geothermal, or EGS, could be made economical the implications are enormous. We’re talking baseload, emission-free electricity on a massive scale that, over time, could eliminate the need for coal-fired or nuclear power plants. It would also silence the critics of renewables who says wind and solar are inadequate because of their intermittancy. Sure, perhaps all this won’t happen in a lifetime, but it bodes well for future generations who can look forward to ample supplies of solar, wind, and geothermal power and their support of electric vehicles.
Google, the world’s most popular Internet brand, isn’t breaking the bank with this investment. In fact, AltaRock announced yesterday that Google’s investment, through its philanthropic arm Google.org, is only part of a $26.25 million financing round involving Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Khosla Ventures and two other VCs. But what Google brings to this technology is much-needed public awareness. Google can make EGS look relevant and cool, as it has done for plug-in electrics and solar thermal. Google has reach. Google has clout. Google, in addition to making money, is also on a mission to drive change.
Drill for heat, not oil, is what Google is essentially saying with this investment.
So, how does Google’s investment benefit Canada? Well, to my American friends, it probably comes as no surprise that my oil-sands-obsessed country is asleep at the switch on the geothermal front. We stopped collecting data on geothermal resources back in the 1980s, and currently have zero — Z-E-R-O — power production in the country from geothermal. It’s not like there isn’t potential in British Columbia and Alberta, which shares similar geography to geothermal-rich states in the U.S. west. And as AltaRock founder Susan Petty tells me, EGS could unlock potential in eastern provinces like Ontario, just as geothermal power plants could one day sprout up in New York or Michigan where a history of natural gas drilling has shown some high-temperature anomolies.
Google Earth has a geothermal mapping application that gives a sense of the potential in these northeastern states. Drill up to 9.5 kilometres in Michigan and 2 per cent recovery of geothermal resources will get you 7,721 megawatts. In New York the yield is 10,156 megawatts. That’s at least a couple of big nuclear plants.
Again, it may take a couple of decades to make this depth of drilling economical, but bring it on.
Google Earth, as expected, doesn’t show the potential in Canada. That’s because we don’t have the data. And herein lies the Canadian angle to Google.org’s announcement: The search giant has given Southern Methodist University Geothermal Lab about $500,000 “to improve understanding of the size and distribution of geothermal energy resources and to update geothermal mapping of North America.”
The italics are my emphasis. I confirmed with the folks at Google.org that indeed the university will be mapping all of North America, including Canada. This effort is something that should be funded and overseen by the Canadian government, but since that’s not likely to happen anytime soon (we don’t even have our own monthly inventory of oil, natural gas and gasoline production/stockpiles), it’s good to see somebody else filling the vacuum. So thank you Google. When the data does become available, it will be much easier to sell the idea of geothermal development in Canada to both the public and our politicians.
It’s so silly, really, that a U.S. company is paying a U.S. university to do the work that should be funded and conducted by Canadians. Is there not any agency in Canada, any university, willing to fund and take on this analysis at home? Can we not find $500,000 (far less is probably required) to conduct an analysis of our own back yard?
I issue the challenge.