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Hot and steamy energy? Utah hopes for a geothermal first

SALT LAKE CITY — John McLennan is ready to battle Mother Nature and the odds by turning 50 years of history on its head and accessing geothermal power in a new way.

"For a researcher, this is more than a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said McLennan, an associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Utah.

The project is FORGE, or the Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Engineering, and the idea is to drill two wells to access geothermal energy.

In a closed loop system like this, in which cold water will be injected to circulate through hydraulic fractures and brought up to flash as steam, the connection between the two pathways has never been achieved before.

But with the advent of directional drilling, the research team hopes to change that.

"Mother Nature has foiled this for the last 50 years," McLennan said in a recent combined meeting of the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards.

At a remote spot 8 miles from Beaver County's Milford, the next six years will be a test of the technology, with the international community ready to assess the viability of tapping into the superheated power.

The tests are possible after the Milford site was selected in June by the U.S. Department of Energy to determine if this application of geothermal engineering will work.

Utah ultimately beat four other national competitors in the hunt for an underground laboratory and secured $130 million from the federal government for research and testing.

McLennan said this type of research was tried in the 1970s in Los Alamos, New Mexico, but what has changed the game now is the advent of horizontal drilling.

"There have been about 30 projects internationally where people have been trying to make this commercial, and really, it hasn't succeeded up to the present time," he said. "This is the first time that the new directional drilling and new technology is being applied. We really think it is going to make a big difference in this particular case."

That technology, he said, allows the two wells at a depth of 7,500 feet to act like a radiator.

"They are interconnected by hydraulic fracturing," McLennan said. "What you establish is something like a radiator on a car. It's a heat exchange system that you pump cold water down one well, it passes through the system of hydraulic fractures and as it passes through that, it takes on heat from the rock. "

The superheated water is brought to the surface and flashed as steam, which can turn a turbine and produce energy.

The project involves injecting about 2,000 gallons of water a minute, but McLennan said it will use nonpotable water that comes from water rights acquired over the years.

In the next eight to 12 months, the necessary infrastructure will be put in place, and in about a year's time the first well will be drilled. About $10 million will be spent to complete this second phase, and by 2019 the five-year, phase three will be underway.

Utah is already No. 3 in the country for its production of geothermal power, at 72 megawatts installed, but the Utah Governor's Office of Energy Development says there is a potential for another 2,200 megawatts to be developed. A megawatt can power between 750 and 1,000 homes.

Laura Nelson, executive director of the governor's energy office and Gov. Gary Herbert's energy adviser, said the Milford site will prove invaluable to industry and government research efforts.

"Once the lab concept essentially proves itself, you will see ongoing federal support," she said. "Industry is going to want to come in and test out the new technology."

The University of Utah's Energy and Geoscience Institute will manage research contracts and conduct continual environmental monitoring.

McLennan said the area has been seismically monitored since the early 1980s by University of Utah seismograph stations. He termed the area "aseismic" but said monitoring for any activity will continue.

The project is located on land owned by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration in the heart of Utah's renewable energy corridor, which includes a wind farm, solar fields and a biogas facility.