DOE Providing $140 Million For Utah Geothermal Research

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The Department of Energy recently announced that it will give the University of Utah up to $140 million in funding for geothermal research and development over the next five years. The Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy (FORGE) field laboratory will be the facility for the work, which will be located near Milford, Utah.

 “Enhanced geothermal systems are the future of geothermal energy, and critical investments in EGS will help advance American leadership in clean energy innovation,” explained US Secretary of Energy Rick Perry.

FORGE answered some questions for CleanTechnica about the funding and project.

1. What will the $140 million in continued funding over the next five years be used for primarily?

The $140 million will be used to conduct Phase 2C and 3 activities. Phase 2C activities include full Milford site characterization, leadership team assemblage, and finalization of baseline metrics and research and development (R&D) plan. Phase 3 activities include drilling, reservoir stimulation and testing, seismic monitoring, and competitive R&D. 50% of Phase 3 funding will fund competitive R&D solicitations.

2. Is there currently an ETA for when enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) will be ready for widespread adoption?

The Geothermal Technologies Office (GTO) actively pursues EGS R&D projects to facilitate technology validation and deployment, reduce cost, and improve performance. While achieving cost-competitive electricity generation from EGS is a long-term goal, the Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy (FORGE) and associated R&D projects will aid in moving industry along the learning curve toward technological readiness.

3. Do you have an idea of what the roadmap for enhanced geothermal looks like over the next ten years?

GTO is developing a programmatic roadmap as part of the Geothermal Vision Study to be released later this year. Additionally, GTO is currently developing a FORGE roadmap in collaboration with a cross-section of geothermal experts from industry, universities, and national labs that will be released in December 2018.

Harnessing EGS resources will require improvements and advancements in technology. Advances are needed in detection of subsurface signals, drilling and wellbore integrity technologies, and creating and maintaining permeability in geothermal reservoirs once they are created. Enhanced and innovative tools and techniques can ensure optimal resource use, improve well life cycles, and enhance overall performance of geothermal wells. Technology advances are crucial for developing commercially competitive EGS projects and unlocking the full potential of U.S. geothermal. New technologies should also leverage existing innovations from other U.S. industries, including oil and gas.

4. Will the research conducted in Utah be spun off into commercial products or services?

The objective of FORGE is to establish and manage a dedicated site where the scientific and engineering communities that study Earth’s subsurface will be able to develop, test and improve new technologies and techniques in an ideal EGS environment. This will allow the geothermal and other subsurface communities to gain a fundamental understanding of the key mechanisms controlling EGS success, in particular how to initiate and sustain fracture networks in basement rock using different stimulation technologies and techniques. This critical knowledge will be used to design and test a methodology for developing large-scale, economically sustainable heat exchange systems, thereby paving the way for a rigorous and reproducible approach that will reduce industry development risk. Ideally, some of the R&D projects conducted at FORGE will be spun off into commercial products, but that is not a primary goal of the initiative.

5. What goals are in place for the EGS research, and what metrics will be used to measure the success?

The University of Utah will assemble a Science and Technology Advisory Team (STAT) to plot the R&D activities that will take place during Phase 2C and Phase 3. This entity will consist of a group of best-in-class technical experts, who can provide overall technical guidance and ensure that GTO objectives are fully considered and incorporated into the execution of FORGE and associated R&D field projects. The STAT, of which GTO will appoint at least 30% of the members, will play a critical role during Phases 2C and 3 of FORGE by assessing R&D needs in accordance with GTO and FORGE roadmaps and goals, establishing technical baseline information and performance specifications, guiding ongoing site characterization and monitoring efforts, developing topics for recurring FORGE R&D solicitations, providing guidance for review and selection of R&D projects, and developing future R&D strategies. The STAT will also assess the progress and results of all R&D technology and techniques implemented at FORGE and provide input to the site operator for the development of annual topical reports.

Throughout the entire project, the objective of FORGE is to establish and manage FORGE as a dedicated site where the subsurface scientific and engineering community will be eligible to develop, test and improve new technologies and techniques in an ideal EGS environment. DOE will have a substantial role in project decision-making, including participation in decisions related to the technical, programmatic, and/or financial aspects of the project and/or operation of the FORGE.

6. Will the research endeavors include undergraduate and graduate students?

A central goal of the Geothermal Technologies Office (GTO) is the technical training of the American workforce through science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. The geothermal space presents a diverse and powerful suite of opportunities for new job creation requiring a workforce that is technically skilled in subsurface science and electricity generation. To maintain American competitiveness and ensure the domestic workforce is available and qualifies for the geothermal jobs of the future, GTO will incorporate STEM education and workforce training at the Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy (FORGE).

Throughout the initial phases of the FORGE initiative, graduate students supported the University of Utah’s efforts in developing a strong understanding of the Milford site. We plan to engage students of all levels in the next phases of FORGE. As stated in the original FORGE funding opportunity announcement, the initiative will address workforce development through engaging students and educators (K-12 and higher education) onsite and in the classroom regarding EGS science and technology. DOE is proud to support the development of the next generation of research scientists helping to make success at FORGE, and in turn EGS, a reality.

7. Do you have a team in place yet, and how many staff do you expect to working together on the EGS efforts?

FORGE efforts will require careful integration of primary surface and subsurface site operations and infrastructure with an expansive and competitive R&D program, open to the broader scientific and engineering community and other key partners as established during the project. This may include collaborations on crosscutting R&D with other DOE offices engaged in complementary subsurface energy research, and incorporation of other key personnel supported by DOE outside of FORGE. In short, FORGE is envisioned as a highly collaborative, inclusive effort supported by and involving a large, diverse group of scientists.

The University of Utah has assembled a great deal of their team already, and will be assembling the remainder of their team, including their STAT, in Phase 2C.

8. Will the funding be continuous regardless of a change in the presidential administration?

The FORGE initiative was started in 2014 and continues to receive support from Congress.

9. Will the DOE oversee the research, and will DOE representatives visit the facilities?

DOE will be substantially involved in the FORGE initiative. DOE will have a substantial role in project decision-making, including participation in decisions related to the technical, programmatic, and/or financial aspects of the project and/or operation of the FORGE. Responsibilities will include but are not limited to: collaborating on FORGE activities and recommending alternate approaches, reviewing and concurring with ongoing technical performance, the appointment of members to review teams (in an amount of at least 30% representation), resolving any conflicts of interest, and liaising between other federal programs and/or industry staff.

10. What will be the initial focus of the research, and how long will the first phases or phases last?

The FORGE initiative has been underway since 2014. The Utah team has been selected to move into Phase 2C, which will begin this fall and primarily focus on full site characterization, leadership team assemblage, and finalization of baseline metrics and R&D plan. Phase 3 activities, following a go/no-go decision scheduled for the spring of 2019, will include drilling, reservoir stimulation and testing, seismic monitoring, and competitive R&D.

During Phase 3 it is anticipated that annual R&D solicitations will be issued with 10-20 proposals funded for research and technology testing per competition in the important EGS categories. Researchers from industry, universities, national labs, non-profit organizations, and government agencies will be eligible to submit proposals to these solicitations for the purpose of testing and evaluating innovative tools and techniques at FORGE. Phase 3 will last approximately five years.

11. The article about the funding says that one intention is to disseminate technical data and communicate with the public. How will this data be disseminated and how will you communicate with the public about EGS?

Timely data dissemination for all GTO-funded research is a key measure of success for GTO. This is accomplished primarily through the GTO Geothermal Data Repository (GDR), where all GTO-funded projects upload comprehensive datasets spanning from raw data to final project reports that are freely available to the public. The Utah FORGE team has already uploaded 44 separate submissions, 114 resources, and 100 files totaling more than 136 GB of data, and will continue to do upload data on a regular basis throughout the remaining efforts at FORGE.

Communications, education, and outreach efforts will continue throughout the entirety of Phase 3, focused on EGS themes relevant to annual R&D testing at FORGE, innovative drilling operations, stimulation activities, flow testing, and sustainability techniques. University of Utah will determine their methods, how they are mapped to specific audiences, the frequency of the activities, and the ultimate goals of the diverse approaches.

12. Will you be exploring the use of new IT technologies like AI, AR, VR, or blockchain and how they might support EGS?

GTO recently released a request for information on applying machine learning to geoscience challenges that are relevant to geothermal energy. GTO is therefore interested in focusing on machine learning applications for characterization and improving our understanding of the subsurface in the future. Ultimately, however, the University of Utah team, along with its STAT, their R&D plan, and the upcoming FORGE Roadmap, will determine whether (or what types of) new technologies will be investigated during the FORGE initiative.

Image Credit: Wikipedia, Public domain

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Jake Richardson

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