AltaRock Energy Shuts Down California Geothermal Project

Utility-scale geothermal, or taping heat deep inside the earth’s core to generate large amounts of clean and reliable electricity, sounds like a great idea but it seems more and more like an impossible feat.

Yesterday, the New York Times reported, that AltaRock Energy, a geothermal developer backed by Google and other venture capital big wigs, gave notice to the Department of Energy that it would abandoned its Geysers drilling project, located north of San Francisco. The DOE confirmed that AltaRock had given notice and that it was walking away from the project.

The project had run into trouble earlier this year, because of concern that drilling so deep into the earth’s core could trigger earthquakes.

The news comes just a couple of days after Swiss authorities shutdown a utility-scale geothermal project in Basel, after studies determined the project would trigger earthquakes and cause millions of dollars of damages each year. Former oilman Markus Haring was developing that project.

Utility-scale geothermal technology leverages existing oil and gas drilling processes, which have been instrumental in taping new resources at unprecedented depths. That drilling capability is one-reason oil majors are debunking peak oil theorists and maintain that there are plenty of hydrocarbons left; the reserves are just much deeper and harder to access.

AltaRock has raised $30 million from Google as well as Khosla Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. It also had secured a $6 million Department of Energy grant. The company seeks to tap heat from hot bedrocks to generate hundred of megawatts of electricity. To do that it’s developed a process known as Engineered Geothermal Systems (EGS), which consists of drilling deep into the earth’s core, fracturing hot rocks and injecting water to produce steam. The steam is then piped to power nearby electricity turbines — see below for a clear visual of how this process works.

AltaRock, which is based in Seattle, confirmed to the New York Times that it was pulling out of the project. We have calls out to the company.

A spokeswoman for the DOE, which has invested some $440 million to develop geothermal technology this year alone, tells the New York Times: “The Department of Energy believes that geothermal energy holds enormous potential to heat our homes and power our economy while decreasing our carbon pollution.”

Picture Credit: AltaRock Energy and Department of Energy
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