Newberry Geothermal: New Path to Tap Energy

Officials Say Small 'Micro-Quakes' Shouldn't be Felt

La PINE, Ore. - Oregon is known for going green and efforts to create new ways of renewable energy. An experimental project on the side of the Newberry Volcano southeast of Bend could soon be added to the list.

Seattle based AltaRock Energy is in the process of testing a new technology that creates geothermal energy by sending water thousands of feet below the surface, heating it up and then sending back up.

"To have it be something like this, where it's sort of next step in geothermal development, where you are trying to create something and not just tap into something that's already there -- it's pretty interesting science," said Michael Moore, the project manager.

AltaRock is leasing several wells from Davenport Newberry Holdings, who spent nearly $30 million to drill the wells 10,000 feet deep.

Davenport was hoping to generate power through existing geothermal pockets, but a lack of water forced them to leave the project.

Now AltaRock plans to bring in water, pump it down into existing cracks, seal the water in so it can heat up and then force it back up.

The difference between AltaRock's geothermal plans and conventional ones is, AltaRock has developed a way to seal off certain sections of the well and work piece by piece.

Over the last week the company has been placing an array of seismometers inside the wells as a precaution.

"We will be able to watch and see what effect the water is going to have and we are going to set limits," said Adam Schultz, a geophysicist at Oregon State University.

Scientists say the process will expand some of the existing cracks and could cause very small tremors -- referred to as "micro-seismicity" -- but the chances of anyone feeling anything are small.

"They've done an analysis of what I will call 'felt events,'" said Schultz. "You know,'If you live in La Pine, 10 miles away, will you feel it?' And the probability looks extremely small that you will feel these events."

Scientists say there is always a tiny chance that something could go wrong, but add that the company behind the project is prepared.

"If they get it wrong, they also have a strategy to shut down the pumping and depressurize the system," said Schultz. "Basically, because they have the sensor network in place, they can monitor it real time and adjust pressures accordingly."

Scientists and project managers say if successful, the project could lead to a new green revolution across the country.

"I think the prospects are good in the coming decades for in essence of having an Oregon that is powered by renewables," said Schultz, "This is really important for everyone, for the economy and on environmental grounds."

The project will begin to pick up later this August, and by September or October they could begin pumping water nearly 10,000 feet below ground.

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