In an interesting coincidence of timing, the US Department of Energy announced $15 million in new funding for geothermal energy research on December 14, just two days before Netflix is set to air a documentary that depicts the aftermath of a geothermal eruption in painful, horrific detail. The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari begins airing on Friday, December 16 with survivor accounts of the unstoppable power of Earth’s natural systems — and a timely reminder of human resilience in the face of absolute catastrophe.
CleanTechnica had the opportunity to speak with the director of The Volcano, award winning documentary film maker Rory Kennedy, and with Rosaly Lopes, a NASA scientist and volcanologist who visited Whakaari in 2014. Their stories are below.
New Respect For Geothermal Energy
In past years, audiences for a documentary like The Volcano could view the looming danger of Whakaari as something that happens to others, a one-in-a-million, awful case of being in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time. Today, the looming danger is all around. More people are being exposed to the catastrophic impact of floods, wildfires, destructive storms and other episodic events that are increasing in frequency, scope and ferocity as the Earth’s climate warms. The US Navy, for one, has taken note of climate impacts on its humanitarian aid and rescue missions.
On a more positive note, signs of a humanity-wide pulling-together are finally emerging as the pressure for decarbonization mounts. In a new study this year, the International Energy Agency reported that the curve of global carbon emissions is beginning to bend, even though the nations of the world have barely tapped into their wind and solar resources.
Geothermal energy is another field ripe with unexploited potential. Here in the US, for example, the geothermal industry has been languishing in the doldrums for decades. With a few notable exceptions, geothermal energy has been mainly treated as a tourist attraction at public parks, mainly in Yellowstone National Park and other parts west.
A Fresh Look At Geothermal Energy In The US
By 2013, the US Department of Energy had all but given up on expanding the geothermal industry domestically, though it continued to support new technology for export. High costs and geographical limits have been among the stumbling blocks to development in the US. However, during the Obama administration a solution emerged in the form of enhanced geothermal technology.
Instead of relying on natural geological formations, enhanced geothermal deploys human-made below-ground reservoirs to draw heat from the Earth. That approach can expand the reach of geothermal development into new regions.
The Energy Department’s signature program for enhanced geothermal energy R&D is the underground laboratory Utah FORGE, located in Beaver County, Utah, near the town of Milford in the Mineral Mountains. Established in 2015, Utah FORGE has been creating and stabilizing an underground reservoir in the form of a network of fractures in rock. The project continued during the Trump administration and reached a significant milestone last year, on its way to a target year of 2024 for full operation.
The Biden administration’s new “Earthshots” program is also in play. The goal of the program’s Enhanced Geothermal Shot is to reduce costs 90% by 2035.
$15 Million More For New Geothermal Technology
Meanwhile, the Energy Department has also been focusing on cutting costs on the drilling side. The latest news on that score is a new round of $15 million in funding for two projects aimed at speeding up drilling rates by at least 25%.
“DOE has a goal for geothermal to contribute at least 60 gigawatts of clean, renewable electricity in the United States by 2050, but only a fraction of that potential has been realized so far,” the Energy Department explained.
As with Utah FORGE, the new round of combines the knowledge base of oil and gas drilling with new R&D.
That explains why Occidental Petroleum and its partners received an award of $9 million for their GLADE (Geothermal Limitless Approach to Drilling Efficiencies) project. The work involves digging a pair of high-temperature geothermal wells with a combination of conventional and new drilling technologies.
The firm Geysers Power Company and its partners will focus their $6.2 million award on new technologies and methodologies, in a project called “Evaluation of Physics-Based Drilling and Alternative Bit Design” at The Geysers geothermal field in California.
If all goes according to plan, that 60-gigawatt goal for geothermal energy could power the equivalent of at least 40 million US homes by 2050.
Of Terror & Humanity
Whakaari, also called White Island, is located off the coast of New Zealand’s North Island. It is categorized as an active volcano, but for the most part it has rested in quiet, and it has been visited by tourists for generations.
That changed after Monday, December 9, 2019. Of the 47 tourists and guides on the island at the time, only 22 survived, many with lifelong injuries from severe burns.
The camera of Rory Kennedy does not shy away from the pain and suffering, both physical and emotional. However, the main thrust of the story is the rescue. Separated from mainland help by 30 miles of choppy water, trapped on the island with virtually no medical resources at hand, the survivors had only each other and a handful of early responders to see them through.
Ron Howard approached Kennedy for the story, based on an article in Outside Magazine which appeared the following year, in 2020.
“I read the article with great interest, in part because I was shocked that I hadn’t heard this story before,” Kennedy told CleanTechnica. “They were in a very remote area and didn’t have any real outside support to help them.”
“It was hard to imagine, and then reading these beautiful stories of how everyday people turned into superheros to save others…” she added. “There were these inspiring stories. It’s important to share in the world today, especially in the face of what people are going through, to be on the ground and understand that even in the face of these events, what we have is each other, this sense of humanity.
“I think a lot of us have been lucky enough to go on vacations and have these beautiful experiences, adventure travel or just being exposed to some wonderful things that the Earth has to share with us,” she said. “It’s a celebration of that and also a reminder of how small we are in the face of mother nature. We need to be reminded of the power of nature.”
A sense of humanity is the common thread running through Kennedy’s wide body of work. Take a look on imdb.com. Her next projects include Adrift, a documentary about the global refugee crisis, and another documentary about the “rehab center turned cult,” Synanon.
Kennedy is also a supporter of the Climate Emergency Fund, established in 2019 to support activism and protest.
The Power Of Mother Nature
Given the horrific aftermath of the Wakhaari eruption, it’s fair to ask what tourists were doing out there. Kennedy points out that tourists have always been going there, for as long as anyone can remember.
In fact, NASA scientist Rosaly Lopes told CleanTechnica that before 2019, it was easier for tourists to schedule a visit than it was for scientists.
Lopes had an opportunity to pass through New Zealand in 2014, and she contacted some colleagues there to see about getting a look at Wakhaari. They explained that she could simply hop on a tour.
And, that’s what she did. She went on a tour, even though she was aware of the potential for danger.
“I think the documentary did a really great job of telling the story of what happened that day. It’s really tragic,” Lopes said. “Going to a place like Wakhaari is potentially very dangerous. I asked if it was possible to visit Wakhaari. I knew it was potentially dangerous, but the answer I got was that the volcanologists on New Zealand were restricted but you could just take this tour and go as a tourist.”
“The odds that something would happen at the exact moment you were there are very low, but we don’t have a good way of predicting when an explosion like that will happen, she explained.
Nevertheless, Lopes also noted that natural geothermal energy is predictable in many regions, most notably in Iceland. With more resources pouring into R&D programs, the potential for geothermal energy to propel the global energy transition is growing by the year.
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Image (trailer screenshot): Eruption of Wakhaari in 2019, courtesy of Netflix.