AltaRock’s Project Blows Up In Their Faces – Hot Rocks Goes Bust

Ever since June, I have struggled with how to write this headline. This concept, Deep Hot Geothermal, has so much potential. It promises limitlessness pollution free energy BUT its execution requires great care. It also probably means more cost in drilling and a closed loop system rather then the current use of open loop rock fracture like for hot swimming pools or basements. The real issue was should I do a fun title like the above or a more serious title? But first I must say:


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First there was the shut down of the Swiss project, (I mean really, deep well drilling in a historic district?), because of alleged earthquakes. Then there were Earthquakes off Jamaica caused by another smaller project. Finally there were the Earthquakes attributed to a deep well injection and rock fragmentation project in Texas. So it was only a matter of time. Tick Tick Tick. You know that drilling anywhere in earthquake prone California was going to be fraught with nightmares.  Courtney Roby tackled the headline issue like this:

AltaRock’s Little Earthquakes

Maybe, possibly, engineered geothermal systems like those being demo-ed by AltaRock bring an increased risk of small earthquakes. It’s not a reason to abandon their promise as an energy resource.

By Courtney Roby | June 25, 2009

AltaRock Energy, a California-based company specializing in engineered geothermal systems (EGS), was the subject of a story in today’s New York Times which was certainly alarmist, if not genuinely alarming. AltaRock is currently preparing to put into action a design for a demo geothermal project in California’s NCPA Geysers Geothermal Field area. This area, which has been producing geothermal energy from steam wells since 1983, is located in the seismically shaky San Francisco Bay Area. The same geological factors that make the area a good place for geothermal energy extraction make it a high-risk area for earthquakes, and it is on these fears that the Times article centers.

The article does not have much to say about the particular risks involved with AltaRock’s project. Instead, it recounts the story of a 2006 project run by the Swiss company Geothermal Explorers, which aimed to extract geothermal energy from the bedrock near Basel. Geothermal Explorers used a technique that involved shooting a jet of water into drilled holes, which then produced fractures (a technique known, to the delight of Battlestar Galactical fans everywhere, as “fracking”) in the hot bedrock below, where the water was heated, rose back to the surface, and upon expansion emerged as steam, which powered turbines to produce usable energy. The result was an always-on source of non-polluting, waste-free energy, which seemed like a good bargain until reports of small earthquakes started coming in. In response to these reports, the project was immediately shut down.


Then in September this:

September 3, 2009 6:59 AM PDT

Geothermal start-up AltaRock suspends drilling

by Martin LaMonic A new company pursuing an advanced geothermal energy technology has had to suspend its first attempt to drill a deep well in Northern California.

AltaRock Energy on Wednesday said it ran into problems during drilling for a demonstration project, “resulting from geologic anomalies particular to the formation” at the Geysers Geothermal field.

The project, said to be budgeted at $17 million, was partially funded by a Department of Energy grant given to several companies to explore the viability of enhanced geothermal systems. Sausalito, Calif.-based AltaRock was funded by Google and venture capital company Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

dot dot dot

(Credit: AltaRock Energy)

Although technical difficulties are normal in drilling projects, the progress of AltaRock is significant because it is one of few companies pursuing enhanced, or engineered, geothermal systems. It’s a technology that holds great promise but that has raised safety concerns.

Traditional geothermal power draws on naturally occurring underground hot-water reservoirs to make electricity. With enhanced geothermal systems, wells are dug a few miles underground, and rock formations are fractured. Then water is injected into the wells, heated by the rock, and pulled back up. That hot water is converted to steam to turn an electricity turbine.

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study two years ago found that using this enhanced method of geothermal power generation could supply 10 percent of the electricity in the United States. It could also be done in a wide variety of locations, rather than just the limited number of locations that have traditional geothermal resources.

In its statement, AltaRock didn’t offer many details on why it suspended drilling but said it is evaluating other locations to build a demonstration facility, including other spots at the site where it had been working.

Martin LaMonica is a senior writer for CNET’s Green Tech blog. He started at CNET News in 2002, covering IT and Web development. Before that, he was executive editor at IT publication InfoWorld. E-mail Martin.


Then this 2 days ago:

Drumbeat: December 13, 2009

Geothermal Project in California Is Shut Down

The company in charge of a California project to extract vast amounts of renewable energy from deep, hot bedrock has removed its drill rig and informed federal officials that the government project will be abandoned.The project by the company, AltaRock Energy, was the Obama administration’s first major test of geothermal energy as a significant alternative to fossil fuels and the project was being financed with federal Department of Energy money at a site about 100 miles north of San Francisco called the Geysers.

But on Friday, the Energy Department said that AltaRock had given notice this week that “it will not be continuing work at the Geysers” as part of the agency’s geothermal development program.

The project’s apparent collapse comes a day after Swiss government officials permanently shut down a similar project in Basel, because of the damaging earthquakes it produced in 2006 and 2007. Taken together, the two setbacks could change the direction of the Obama administration’s geothermal program, which had raised hopes that the earth’s bedrock could be quickly tapped as a clean and almost limitless energy source.


Too bad too because it has such promise…Still I like the title, AltaRock Energy Drills Dry Hole for all kinda reasons. For condolences please go to:


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