Texas

Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Boiling Hot: How Fracking’s Gusher of Geothermal Energy is Wasted

Crew installing geothermal power generator at well site near Laurel, Mississippi.

Courtesy Gulf Coast Green Energy

Crew installing geothermal power generator at well site near Laurel, Mississippi.

There are thousands of oil & gas wells in Texas that tap into the earth’s supply of hot water, some of it a boiling hot 250 F. There are modern, high tech steam engines that could use the water to make electricity. There was a federally-funded experimental power plant that proved the technology could work in Texas.

Yet, geothermal power has gotten a cold shoulder in the state.

“They made (the power plant) work, they proved it was successful, and then they dismantled it because they didn’t have funding to keep the project going,” said Maria Richards, a researcher at Southern Methodist University’s Geothermal Laboratory.

A Texas Experiment that Worked

That 1989 project backed by the U.S. Department of Energy was called the Pleasant Bayou Power Plant. The electricity it generated would power about a 1,000 homes and was sold to what was then Houston’s utility company, HL&P.

The little power plant was located in Brazoria County in an field just ten miles north of Galveston Island which wasn’t by accident. Richards said she and colleagues have found that the hot water that comes from some two miles underground is hottest in the counties along the Gulf Coast where layers of sediment are thicker than in other parts of Texas.

Maria Richards at Southern Methodist University researches geothermal energy

Courtesty SMU

Maria Richards at Southern Methodist University researches geothermal energy

“That layer of sediment acts like an insulator so it’s similar to your blanket on a bed that it’s keeping the heat down there, ” said Richards.

The irony is that while the boom in “fracking” has meant that there are thousands of wells being drilled that could be sources of hot water, the same boom has increased the supply of natural gas. The gas is a relatively cheap fuel for big power plants and its abundance diminishes the interest in alternative sources of energy like geothermal.

A Geyser that Ran Out of Steam

It wasn’t always this way. The Texas General Land Office said at one point, geothermal energy developers had taken out nine leases for wells on state land.

“Texas has a lot of holes drilled in it already from hydrocarbon production. And that also means anyone who’d like to do geothermal energy production can go down those holes and that saves them a considerable amount of money,” said Jim Suydam, spokesperson for the Land Office.

But none of the proposed projects ever took off and the leases lapsed.

“In 2005 there was a great deal of interest in Texas geothermal. Since then there’s been a glut of natural gas on the market due to the advances of hydraulic fracturing. And that’s lowered the price of natural gas substantially and has made geothermal energy production less economically viable,” said Suydam.

But it’s backers aren’t deterred.

“The market I think is huge for this because the fact is, there are over 800,000 oil & gas wells in the United States. And there’s three million gallons per minute of hot water just in the top eight states,” said Loy Sneary, CEO of Gulf Coast Green Energy.

Sneary’s company has developed semi-truck-sized geothermal power plants that he said could provide electricity at drill and production sites. For example, in the Eagle Ford Shale region of South Texas where drilling is surging and where hot water is plentiful.

“The utilities are strapped and they’re stressed to be able to get enough power out to the oil & gas fields. With this equipment, power can be generated on-site,” said Sneary.

But other than some demonstration projects (photo above), the technology isn’t being used and the hot water that comes up from drilling is going to waste.

“It’s going back into the earth but there’s no beneficial use for that hot water. It’s an expense to the company. In fact, produced water is a very high expense for oil and gas companies,” said Sneary.

Comments

  • a person

    why aren’t we funding this?

    • A Person 2

      Becaues it is not economic. What made the Pleasant Bayou a success was the natural gas that was produced with the hot water. The company could sell the gas and make a profit. When gas prices dipped, the plant was shut down.

  • Person 3

    There is a lot of potential for this technology, but its tough to implement with natural gas prices so low. Thats not surprising given EVERY technology is tough to implement with such low natural gas prices. There is almost as much geopressure gas as there is “shale gas”, its just more expensive to extract. When gas gets closer to the $5-$6 range this geothermal/gas hybrid technology becomes viable. Its a worthwhile use of our existing natural resources and I believe deserves continued investment.

  • Vicki

    If it makes sense it will never fly in TEXAS

  • Vicki

    If it means destruction and stealing people’s land and ruining their water supply, then TEXAS is all in.

  • Bruce Cutright

    For those that commented that geothermal is too expensive, I suggest that they take a look at the chart below, presenting the 2012 data compiled by the US DOE and available on the Energy Information Agency web site. Geothermal developed using existing operating or abandon petroleum wells is now the least expensive per kilowatt hour of any method of generating power, and, it is renewable, non polluting, emits no carbon dioxide when binary heat exchange generators are used, and is on line over 92 percent of the time, as opposed to the intermittent nature of solar and wind. Dissolved natural gas, contained in the hot brines was captured and used at the Pleasant Bayou No. 2 pilot project, and the use of this dissolved natural gas does improve the economics of the overall project. However, these natural gas saturated brines are not present everywhere, and the geothermal heat contained within the brines is still economically competitive to develop on its own.

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