Since 1904, when the first electricity was produced from geothermally-produced steam in Larderello, Italy, steam has been used to power millions of homes around the world. However, to this point the use of geothermal energy to produce electricity has been limited to select areas such as Italy, Iceland, Indonesia, California, and Nevada due to the availability of high-temperature geothermal resources.

A team of researchers, led by West Virginia University’s Brian Anderson, has received $1.2 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for a three-year research project aimed at expanding the use of the energy beneath our feet – geothermal energy, that is, stored in the hot rocks beneath the surface of the earth.

“The Department of Energy is aggressively pursuing the development of engineered geothermal systems that will enable the production of energy from any region in the country,” said Anderson. “We are excited to be contributing to that effort, and fully expect to demonstrate that geothermal energy can effectively help us meet our energy needs in the future.”

Anderson, assistant professor of chemical engineering in the WVU College of Mineral Resources, is the lead researcher on the project, along with colleagues from Cornell University, Iowa State University and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The project is one of 123 geothermal energy projects nationwide that together will receive a total of $338 million in stimulus funding from the DOE.

A geothermal energy system, Anderson explained, would involve drilling into the earth in an area with hot or warm rocks, pumping water through those rocks, bringing the heated water back to the surface and using that water to heat buildings or generate electricity.

“Geothermal energy technology is still in the early, planning stage,” said Anderson, “but the nation’s need for energy security and independence is driving an intensive national effort to make it a reality.”

The temperature of the earth increases with depth below the surface of the earth. Geothermal resources today are generally restricted to isolated areas of the western United States where rocks are hot at relatively shallow depths; rocks under the eastern U.S. are not as hot as those at equal depths in the west. Anderson and his fellow researchers will specifically analyze resources and propose methods of using the lower-temperature eastern resources. Some of the planned methods involve using geothermal in combination with other forms of renewable energy such as biomass.

“If we can realize the full geothermal potential of the high-temperature resources in the west and the lower-temperature geothermal resources in the east, it will make a huge difference in the overall energy picture of our country,” he said.



CONTACT: Susan Case, College of Engineering and Mineral Resources