Crews Seek Geothermal
by Laura Lundquist
PAUL -- Out on a remote edge of Lincoln County, a new structure juts up between silos and an old water tower.
Juxtaposed with those representations of past industry, the bright yellow drilling rig represents a future possibility: geothermal energy.
On Sept. 28, workers with the Snake River Scientific Drilling Project erected their three-story drilling rig and began grinding through the sediment and basalt of the Snake River Plain near Kimama. By Friday, they had drilled a 4-inch-diameter test hole more than 1,000 feet, on their way down to between 4,000 and 5,000 feet below the surface. Periodically, they'd withdraw the cores, or lengths of earth, that the circular bit had isolated.
In a nearby tent, 3-foot cores the diameter of a beverage can are laid out in sectioned boxes labeled with successive depths. Along its length, each core bears adjacent red and blue lines so researchers always know the orientation of the cores.
"Red is right," said Mark Ziegenbein, project manager for the U.S. Department of Energy Geothermal Technologies Program.
The project's purpose is two-fold: going for deep data in addition to intermediate information.
By collecting a continuous core of earth almost a mile deep, geologists can analyze a profile of the earth's crust inch-by-inch, said Utah State University geologist John Shervais. Then by creating seismic vibrations and measuring them at various depths in the test hole, scientists can use that information to determine the geology of other areas based on their seismic responses, Shervais said.
"Drilling is expensive," Shervais said. "With this information, seismic and magnetic surveys will allow us to see through basalt."
Drilling is expensive, especially when using diamond-studded drill bits. Chris Delahunty, SRSCP operations director, said each bit costs $2,000 but is worth it because diamonds are the hardest substance on earth. Even so, he'd gone through four bits to get 1,000 feet deep.
The final goal and the reason for going so deep is geothermal exploration.
"There are not many deep wells in this area," Zeigenbein said. "So this may be able to determine if there's a viable geothermal resource."
Zeigenbein said the Idaho project, which will also drill holes near Kimberly and Mountain Home, competed and was selected for $4.6 million of stimulus funds because it's researching new technology to discover geothermal resources. They selected Kimama because the groundwater is warmer than that under the Idaho National Laboratory by 6 to 7 degrees Celsius.
"That indicates an active hot spot and we think the deeper water is much hotter," Shervais said. "The heat flow here is phenomenal." Zeigenbein said there's no reason Idaho shouldn't use more geothermal power. He said it's constant, dependable power, and the only thing holding it back is the funding to use and improve the technology.
"Theoretically, around 2,000 times more geothermal power is available than what the U.S. is using," Zeigenbein said. "We just need to catch up."
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