Geologists Plan Geothermal
by Nate Poppino
Federal stimulus money, it appears, will soon literally be put down a hole.
But researchers say two particular holes, near Kimberly and the Kimama area in Lincoln County, will help them test ways to evaluate geothermal reservoirs under volcanic plains and learn more about the Snake River Plain in the process.
Geologists led by Utah State University plan to spend $4.6 million over two years to drill the mile-deep boreholes and then study the core samples and other data produced. The work will advance geothermal research, provide valuable student opportunities and benefit the economy in the process, said John Shervais, professor and head of Utah State's Department of Geology.
"We know it's going to be hot, but nobody's ever drilled that deep in these areas," Shervais said Thursday.
The award is part of $338 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that will be used for exploration and development of new geothermal fields and research into advanced geothermal technologies. Other Idaho recipients include the Blaine County School District, which will get $4 million to retrofit schools in Hailey, Carey and Bellevue with geothermal systems, and Boise State University, which will use $1.55 million to digitize and upload geologic data into a national data system.
Partners in the Utah State project also include BSU, along with Canada's University of Alberta, the U.S. Geological Survey and the International Continental Drilling Program based in Potsdam, Germany. National Science Foundation funds Shervais plans to apply for next week would bring in about 15 U.S. universities and additional international support for studies of the core samples. The University of Idaho and Idaho State University would also be involved, he said.
Rather than search for hotspots, the researchers plan to compare the characteristics of each site with what they find underground, looking retrospectively for indicators of their potential. Shervais said they'd also like to learn whether drilling under thicker portions of the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer can lead to the same level of heat and power that's available around the edges of the aquifer where there's less cool water. The Kimama borehole is over a central, thick portion of the plain, while the Kimberly site is more on the edge.
The drilling sites will be on public land: U of I's extension farm near Kimberly and a Bureau of Land Management fire station near Kimama. Drill crews will work around the clock every day for three or four months to drill each hole, Shervais said, likely starting in late spring or early summer.
Though actual development of the sites isn't his top priority, Shervais said energy companies certainly could capitalize on the study's findings if the sites seem worth developing. One Magic Valley geothermal power plant already exists, operated by U.S. Geothermal Inc. near Raft River.
"There's plenty of public and private land near both sites that could be available for putting in a power plant, should we prove the resource is sufficient," Shervais said.
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