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How Sologen’s plan to turn abandoned oil and gas wells into geothermal power producers could replace coal power in Texas.

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Students and staff of Southern Methodist University’s Geothermal Lab log temperatures at a well site outside Corpus Christi.


But even as she says it, she hesitates. “For the most part, geothermal is going to start out small, like a wind turbine. Where you have a field of oil and gas wells, there’s no reason not to expect that in the future that field could be turned into a heat-exchange mechanism.”

Even active drilling operations could reroute what drillers typically view as wastewater through a turbine to make energy as they drill. Because of the heavy mineral content, state law requires the groundwater to be reinjected beneath the surface as waste, but at least one driller in Mississippi has already tapped into the non-traditional revenue stream, Richards said.

Geothermal’s “plus” column grows long in a report for the DOE by an MIT-assembled panel in 2005. “Because EGS [Enhanced Geothermal Systems] plants have a small footprint and can operate essentially emissions-free,” the team wrote, “the overall environmental impact of EGS power facilities is likely to be positive, reducing the growth of greenhouse gas emissions while providing a reliable and safe source of electricity.”

 With 3,100 installed geothermal megawatts being generated in the U.S. annually, there are still no commercial operations in Texas. Still, Richards is optimistic, saying she expects to see the state generating “hundreds of megawatts” in the next few years and “tens of thousands” of megawatts by 2050. Smith, by comparison, is absolutely bullish. He sees the potential for geothermal to meet a full half of all the state’s power needs. And he says he’ll be able to sell it in a matter for months for less than nine cents a kilowatt-hour (more than coal, if you don’t factor in the cost of building the coal plant, but less than solar). Though he’s still pursuing subsidies, he insists he can make a profit without them.

Richards hopes more traditional oil and gas companies will get involved. “They have a lot of the technology already, they have a lot of understanding of the earth. For them it is more of a slam-dunk than for someone coming from wind or solar or wanting to invest in something new.”

Russel E. Smith, executive director of the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association, said geothermal and other renewables could be slowed by massive federal spending cuts on the way. “I’m afraid there will be definitely some stalling. But, you know, economics and politics have a way of changing on a dime. You never know what’s going to happen next.”

If anything, the dire economic conditions offer Frank Smith and Sologen the perfect opportunity to prove his claims under less-than-ideal conditions. Speaking from the road to Houston on Tuesday, he said he’d be producing electricity at his first 2.5-megawatt well in about four months. He plans to rapidly duplicate the process at 400 of 5,000 abandoned oil and gas wells his team found usable along the Gulf Coast’s geopressure zone to produce more than a gigawatt of energy within six years — or one and a half times the power of a typical coal plant.

“At the end of the day, we become the insurance policy to the oil and gas industry,” Frank Smith said. “Rather than spending potentially $100,000 to plug a well, they may turn it over to us and we convert it. Once this actually takes off and we become known in the industry, it really becomes transformative.” •

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