Et Tu, WVU? Coal State University Ditches Coal For Geothermal Energy

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The US geothermal energy industry has been left at the starting gate as wind and solar race ahead, but it looks like the geothermal tortoise is finally putting one foot ahead of the other. In the latest development, the iconic coal state of West Virginia just nailed down federal funding that will help West Virginia University shut down a coal-fired cogeneration plant on campus and switch to renewable energy.

Joe Manchin Eyeballs Geothermal Energy For West Virginia

Mention coal and West Virginia in one breath, and thoughts are sure to turn to the state’s US Senator Joe Manchin, who is one of two key senators that could make or break President Biden’s American Jobs Plan.

The jobs plan is designed to turbo-boost the clean energy transition, which is bad news for coal jobs in West Virginia, which partly explains why Senator Manchin is a holdout — but only partly.

Clean power or no clean power, West Virginia has been bleeding coal jobs for generations. A fair share of the blame goes to mountaintop removal and other labor-saving extraction methods, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.

Even the coal-centric United Mine Workers of America is now on board with the idea of plowing many more taxpayer dollars into programs that prepare coal communities for new jobs in clean tech.

UMWA is also holding out for dollars that help preserve the few coal coal jobs that remain, so don’t be surprised if the final version of the jobs plan includes a section for carbon capture and such-like.

Meanwhile, Manchin himself recently dropped a huge hint about where he would like to put those American Jobs Plan clams to work.

On March 1, Manchin paired with Senator Debbie Stabenow  of Michigan to introduce something called the American Jobs in Energy Manufacturing Act, which calls for tweaking a clean energy tax credit to encourage new clean energy manufacturing jobs in rural areas.

“The downturn of the coal industry has left many Americans without the good-paying jobs they once relied on and, more often than not, a lack of new opportunity…I believe that tax credits to help incentivize the transition to a cleaner energy future should be targeted to drive reinvestment in the communities who are the most impacted by that transition,” explained Manchin, who happens to chair the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which happened to hold a hearing on geothermal energy back in 2019, which happened to include a discussion of tapping geothermal power from abandoned coal mines.

Let’s Hear It For Geothermal Energy

The Manchin-Stabenow bill received an enthusiastic thumbs-up from UMWA and a raft of environmental organizations, to boot. And this is where things get interesting.

It’s all well and good to bring new manufacturing jobs into rural areas, but every factory is an energy-sucking sponge, whether it churns out internal combustion engines or EV batteries, and West Virginia is still called the Mountain State for a reason. It will be difficult to build enough new wind, solar, energy storage, and transmission capacity to support new manufacturing facilities in formerly coal-dependent communities in the state.

That’s where the geothermal angle comes in. So far almost all of the nation’s geothermal energy activity has taken place in the western US, but in recent years West Virginia has emerged as a potential geothermal hotspot, and the EPA has already identified a handful of potential coal-to-geothermal sites in the state.

So, it looks like Manchin is on to something.

That sounds easy enough, but the devil is in the details. Geothermal systems are expensive, and the timeline for permitting and construction is long. The US has tapped only a small fraction of its geothermal resources. Nevertheless, the US Department of Energy has been helping to keep the domestic geothermal industry afloat, partly by encouraging innovations that can be exported. With more support from Congress, all that hard work could pay off.

More Clean Power For Coal State School

That finally brings us to West Virginia University. Last year the school’s sprawling Morgantown campus inked a deal with its steam supplier to convert a waste-coal power plant to natural gas, and now it appears that something else is afoot.

Last week the Energy Department announced that WVU is getting a slice of a $15 million pie aimed pushing down geothermal energy costs and reducing risks.

WVU’s project comes under the Energy Department’s “Bi-directional Energy Storage Using Low Temperature Geothermal Applications” umbrella.

The project is called Analysis of Geothermal Deep Direct-Use Combined with Reservoir Thermal Energy Storage. The school already has a head start, having conducted a feasibility study on the use of geothermal energy to sub in for its on-campus coal-fired cogeneration steam plant, which is scheduled for shutdown in 2027.

“In this new phase, WVU will drill an exploratory well with a full logging and coring program critical to developing the resource under the campus and evaluate shallow reservoirs for energy storage. Additionally, WVU will engineer and design the surface plant and conduct technoeconomic analyses of individual building demands and requirements,” the Energy Department explains.

One Coal State School To Rule Them All

If the WVU project pans out, it will set the stage for a geothermal energy revolution in parts of the eastern US.

The researchers who conducted the feasibility study certainly think so.

The Morgantown campus of West Virginia University (WVU) is uniquely positioned to host the first geothermal DDU heating and cooling system in the eastern United States, demonstrating that geothermal is a national resource not limited to the western states,” they enthused.

While much of the eastern United States is not blessed with extremely high heat flow and elevated temperatures, the northeastern part of West Virginia is unique in having a basin that is expected to support the achievable flow rate of geofluid through target formations in the Appalachian Sedimentary Basin, and sufficient temperatures in those target formations,” they added.

That thing about achievable flow rate and temperature is the key to reducing the cost of geothermal energy. Another cost factor is the potential for using the system continuously throughout the year, so keep an eye on that WVU project.

In the meantime, the Energy Department has articulated a plan for a nationwide geothermal revolution.

“The ‘heat beneath our feet’ is an always-on source of secure, reliable, and flexible domestic energy that can be utilized across industrial, commercial, and residential sectors. The use of geothermal energy also offers important benefits to the nation, including grid stability, greater diversity in the portfolio of affordable energy options, efficient heating and cooling, and reduced air pollution,” the Energy Department writes.

The geothermal industry also has a secret weapon up its sleeve. The humble heat pump is already here and now, and it nailed a a featured role in the rollout of the American Jobs Plan. Manufacturing more heat pumps in the US would dovetail nicely with the President’s job-creating plans. If Senator Manchin’s vision for rural manufacturing materializes, perhaps one day West Virginia will add The Heat Pump State to its list of nicknames.

As for the American Jobs Plan, it looks like West Virginia Governor Jim Justice is fond of the whole idea, too.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Image (screenshot): Courtesy of US Department of Energy.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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