Hearings and Business Meetings

SD-366 Energy Committee Hearing Room 02:30 PM

Dr. Walter Snyder

Director, Intermountain West Geothermal Consortium

Statement of Walter S. Snyder

Director, Intermountain West Geothermal Consortium

Before the Energy and Natural Resources Committee

U.S. Senate

July 11, 2006


Mr. Chairman and distinguished members of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, I am Professor Walter S. Snyder from Boise State University and Director of the Intermountain West Geothermal Consortium (IWGC).  The IWGC is comprised of members from academic institutions in Idaho, Nevada, Utah and Oregon and from DOE's Idaho National Laboratory; our members conduct geothermal research throughout the West.  I am honored to have this opportunity to testify today about the importance of geothermal energy production and use on Federal lands in the Western States on behalf of all members of the IWGC.


As has been articulated by the President and Congress, the United States faces a pressing need for the diversification of the national energy portfolio to promote national energy security, lower energy costs, increase reliability, and decrease foreign dependence.  Geothermal resources are a key component of this portfolio both for the generation of electricity and the direct use of geothermal heat. This diversification requires the full utilization of high and low temperature geothermal resources, including increased geothermal power generation, expansion of existing geothermal sites, and the development of resources in urban environments close to end users.  This is particularly opportune for the West where geothermal resources are sufficient to allow for their economic utilization by our rapidly growing urban centers.


To be able to fully and economically utilize geothermal resources, we must better understand the geological, geophysical, geochemical, and hydrologic nature of these complex systems. Our existing geologic knowledge is insufficient for an accurate assessment of the West's geothermal resource potential.  To find new resources, increase the productivity of known resources, and bring these resources online and sustain them, we must improve our ability to fully delineate and characterize both deep and shallow geothermal resources through improved scientific methodology and understanding. That is, we must continue to conduct the basic research that is required to develop this crucial natural and renewable resource.


Through a strategic research program, the Intermountain West Geothermal Consortium (IWGC), authorized by EPACT 2005, is poised to aid federal agencies, industry, state governments, and municipalities to address a wide variety of issues related to geothermal resources. The Consortium is unique in the geothermal community by being the only true multi-institution geothermal research entity. We have moved quickly since EPACT became law and this reflects the collaborative spirit that is our underpinning. The Consortium will bring to the geothermal research community and industry the first coherent, integrated research program and plan for geothermal energy development. My comments, from the perspective of the IWGC, reflect needs and concerns of all geothermal researchers, and research centers from other universities and national laboratories, such as the Geothermal Energy Program at New Mexico State University, Sandia National Laboratories, the Great Basin Center for Geothermal Energy, the National Renewal Energy Laboratory, and others.


The Consortium’s Goal


Our central position is that expanded use of geothermal within the Nation’s energy portfolio requires a better understanding of the complex geologic context of these resources.  This complexity is due to their natural heterogeneity, the complexly interrelated processes that have produced these geothermal systems,  the impact of production on the natural conditions of the reservoirs, and the need to integrate studies at scales ranging from regional down to the specific details of an individual well. This understanding requires improved geology, geophysics, hydrodynamic modeling, and geochemistry.  This knowledge can be used by industry to explore for and find new prospective geothermal regions, maximize the production at sustainable levels from existing sites, and develop procedures to assess the extent and sustainability of direct use geothermal resources.  A sustained research program, one that is collaborative in nature and strategic in design, will greatly help expand the geothermal component in the Nation’s and West's energy portfolio.


Geothermal in the West's Energy Portfolio


Perhaps one of the most powerful statements on the importance of geothermal resources is provided by the Western Governors' Association Geothermal Task Force report of January, 2006 and the recent ancillary report by the WGA's Clean and Diversified Energy Advisory Committee (June, 2006).  Several of the highlights of these reports that are relevant to my testimony are:


!   The Western States share a capacity of almost 13,000 megawatts of geothermal energy that can be developed on specific sites within a reasonable time frame. This is a commercially achievable capacity for new generation and does not include the much larger potential of unknown, undiscovered resources.

!   Geothermal power can be a major contributor to the power infrastructure and economic well-being of the Western States. New geothermal power capacity could add nearly 10,000 jobs, and also generate about 36,000 person-years of construction and manufacturing business.

!   Geothermal power is a reliable, continuously available (24 hours per day – 7 days per week) baseload energy source that typically operates  90 to 98 percent of the time.

!   Insulated from conventional fossil fuel market volatility, geothermal power supports energy price stability and boosts energy security because it is a domestic resource.

!   Geothermal power can help fulfill Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) that strive to diversify the states’ and nation’s energy supply.

!   Geothermal energy is a clean electricity source, discharging far less emissions, including greenhouse gases, than equivalent fossil-fueled generation.


These are powerful, compelling conclusions and have been supported and expanded by others, including the Geothermal Energy Association, the Geothermal Research Council, and the Sustainable Energy Network. The 13,000 megawatts of capacity noted above is the equivalent of about 15 nuclear power plants or 30 coal-fired plants. The Geothermal Energy Association suggests that the potential may actually be two or more times greater, and we agree with that assessment.  The 13,000 megawatt estimate is based on current knowledge of the geology, geophysics, hydrology, geochemistry, and reservoir and production engineering.  With a more rigorous and complete assessment of the details of this geology, there is no reason that geothermal power output capacity cannot be doubled or even tripled above the 13 gigawatt base estimate. But to reach this output requires continued, indeed expanded, and more targeted research.


Direct use is another important, but often overlooked, part of geothermal energy portfolio. Expanded direct use can significantly reduce our power consumption, but it is a woefully underutilized resource.  Direct use includes heating of buildings, greenhouses, aquaculture, and food dehydration.  Its utilization has allowed local business enterprises to flourish that would not have otherwise been possible.  Direct use for these and other purposes should and could become much more widespread.  Boise, Idaho is a prime example within the U.S. of a city that utilizes direct geothermal heat to reduce power consumption.  For over 100 years, this moderate temperature geothermal system has provided heat to homes and businesses and since 1983 has been utilized by the City of Boise to heat over 50 downtown buildings. It is estimated that the use of the Boise geothermal system saves the equivalent of about 40,000 megawatt hours per year.  What we can learn from a much needed detailed study of the Boise system (that does not currently exist) could be transferred to other metropolitan areas where there are similar systems; for example Reno, Nevada and Salt Lake City, Utah. The potential in these and other Western metropolitan areas is effectively unassessed at this time.


The Role of Research


The West is rich in geothermal resources, this is common knowledge.  This is amply documented by the regional maps depicting high heat flow, the reports of the Western Governors' Association, Geothermal Energy Association, Geothermal Research Council, and other organizations.  However, the challenge to changing prospects into reality lies in the details --the geologic, geophysical, geochemical and modeling research that must be conducted to fully understand and produce these complex geothermal systems. Compounding this challenge is the fact that many geothermal systems do not have obvious surface expressions, such as hot springs; they are hidden and require a new approach to find them.  This information can be made available to federal agencies as they manage geothermal resources on our federal lands, to state agencies as they pursue their mandates, to counties and municipalities as they attempt to assess potential use of geothermal, and to industry as they seek new geothermal resources and ways to better use existing ones. A major hindrance to understanding geothermal systems is that none of the geothermal development companies have in-house research capabilities and thus they, and the nation must rely on university and national laboratories to conduct the needed research. 

For power generation, whereas operating costs are comparatively low once a producing field is established, perhaps the major impediment to expanding geothermal's contribution to the energy portfolio is the relatively high up-front cost of bringing power on-line. One of the best remedies to this impediment is improving resource information through efficient exploration and maintaining successful wellbore logs. The geothermal industry agrees with this, and it is the academic and national laboratory research community that must address ways to increase the rate of successful drilling by providing industry with necessary basic geoscience facts and models.


For direct use, the main issues are the extent and size of the resource and the sustainable rate at which it can be used. States, counties, municipalities, and small direct-use companies simply do not have the resources to conduct the level of studies necessary to fully delineate and characterize potential direct use resources. Again, the academic and national laboratory research groups need to step in. 


As with most resource industries, ours finds that there is a shortage of trained professionals available to meet personnel needs in both government and industry. This shortage will only become worse without concerted efforts to educate the next generation of science and engineering professionals. Only those universities involved in research will be able to adequately train the students who must become the next generation of state, federal and private industry professionals working on geothermal and related activities.


The Intermountain West Geothermal Consortium


The Intermountain West Geothermal Consortium (IWGC) is comprised of six institutions from four states and will be conducting targeted studies of low-, moderate-, and high- temperature geothermal systems in Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Nevada, California, and elsewhere. As recently stressed in letters to Congress by the Geothermal Energy Association, the knowledge gained by IWGC-type activities is necessary for the continued expansion of geothermal development throughout the West, and indeed, nationally.


The Energy Policy Act of 2005 authorized the creation of the Intermountain West Geothermal Consortium.  The IWGC is initially comprised of the Idaho National Laboratory, the Idaho Water Resources Research Institute at the University of Idaho, the Geo-Heat Center at Oregon Institute of Technology, the Desert Research Institute (Nevada), the Energy and Geoscience Institute at the University of Utah, and Boise State University.


We have moved quickly to implement the IWGC once EPACT became law. The IWGC works closely with industry and state and federal agencies to assist in bringing geothermal resources online for direct use and power generation. The consortium proposes to conduct targeted studies of low-temperature systems of importance to municipalities and small companies. It will conduct critical studies of high- and moderate-temperature resources to better aid industry in bringing these resources online for power generation. By working with the Geothermal Research Council, the Geothermal Energy Association, state geothermal working groups, state geological surveys, the USGS, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and by partnering with other geothermal  groups and institutions, we will be able to broaden the scope and impact of our work.  Although IWGC focuses regionally, the knowledge and technology developed will be used to enhance utilization of geothermal energy as a resource throughout the West and the United States.


IWGC is and will address numerous research questions including the following:  To better assist exploration and development efforts, can we better couple geophysical signals with reservoir simulation, including forward and backlooking (inverse) modeling? "What geophysical techniques can be used to identify and characterize hidden geothermal systems such as

the Raft River geothermal system in Idaho? What geoscience information on geothermal systems is required to allow geothermal systems to be engineered to enhance and maintain permeability and long-term reservoir productivity? How can we assess and reduce the predictive uncertainty in geothermal reservoir performance? How can energy conversion be improved and operation and maintenance costs reduced? Are there new non-power generation uses of geothermal fluids? And, can we develop better methodologies to monitor the reservoir for exploration, production and long term maintenance using new methodologies and a more complete understanding of the system? The list of questions go on but this serves as an example of the geothermal resource research needs.


Research and Knowledge Transfer


There is an growing awareness of the need to maximize the return on the federal research dollar investment by making research results more readily available.  Traditionally, part of that return is reinvested in the science research process itself - typically through publications. However, for a subject such as geothermal, publications alone are an insufficient outcome.  What is needed is better method of knowledge transfer to geothermal stakeholders--the relevant federal and state agencies, state, county, and municipality governments, and industry. There are several ways to accomplish this that taken together constitute a new paradigm for research:  1) publication of results, 2) open access to all relevant data through a digital information system, 3) open access to physical geologic samples and logs, and 4) directly working and communicating with stakeholders.


It is important to note that items 1 and 2 are significantly different. What hinders public policy decision making, agency management decisions and activities, knowledgeable use by state and local governmental bodies and industry, and the science itself is not access to published papers, but the lack of complete access to relevant data and metadata. Item 3 highlights the fact that far too often in the geological sciences physical samples, that still have great value are not properly stored or made available to all interested parties - samples that were paid for by federal research dollars.  IWGC will make those data available. Finally, item 4 requires that research organizations persistently engage in stakeholder communication.


The IWGC is adopting this new paradigm for research operations. Publications will continue to be written, for that is the golden frank of the researcher.  But we are also developing a digital information system that will host all data generated by IWGC researchers and make these data openly available in understandable format after a reasonable moratorium period.  The Energy and Geoscience Institute at the University of Utah, currently houses the largest collection geothermal cores and samples, and the IWGC is committed to continue to support that effort.  The IWGC will work with stakeholders not only through our website, but by hosting and participating in conferences, seminars, and workshops and engaging in other outreach efforts. We will work directly with stakeholders on specific issues importance to them.  We will also partner with organizations already engaged in community outreach, including the Geothermal Energy Association, Geothermal Research Council, GeothermalBiz, the Geothermal Education Office, the Sustainable Energy Network, the Environmental and Energy Studies Institute, GeoPowering the West, and others.  Separately, these four approaches are not revolutionary, but taken together they represent a new approach to research and knowledge transfer to better serve the geothermal stakeholders.




The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved $22.5 million in FY07 to the Department of Energy budget for geothermal research and development.  The House approved $5 million. The members of the Intermountain West Geothermal Consortium want to express their support for the Senate's mark.  Although EPACT authorizes geothermal research and the IWGC, without funding it will be impossible to implement the Act's provisions.  More fundamentally, without ongoing and sustained research and therefore research funding, the continued expansion of geothermal energy within our nation's energy portfolio will be severely curtailed.


All members of the IWGC want to thank the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee for holding this hearing addressing geothermal and renewable energy resources in the Western U.S. The decisions made by this Committee can have a very real impact on the nation's energy supply and we appreciate and ask for your continued support.


Thank you.