Mount St. Helens erupted in rural Washington State 42 years ago with the force of 25,000 atomic bombs, killing 57 people and reminding everyone in that the geothermal energy pinned below the Earth’s surface is capable of infinite savagery. Loving the beast is the topic of the new Oscar-submitted documentary Fire of Love, which you can watch on Disney+. Meanwhile, geothermal researchers are coming up with some new ways to tame it.
Loving The Geothermal Energy Beast
Fire of Love follows the 20th-century scientists Katia and Maurice Krafft from youth to their careers as a volcano-chasing married couple who amassed a treasure trove of photographs, films, and scientific recordings as they traveled the world in search of answers to one of Earth’s greatest and most difficult-to-document mysteries.
The Kraffts also left Fire of Love director Sara Dosa with a mountain of stunning, sensual images to cull through, made possible by the couple’s willingness to get as close to their subject as possible. If you don’t have Disney+ check out the National Geographic Documentary Film trailer and you’ll see.
The Technology Factor
Nowadays, drones can do some of the heavy lifting. CleanTechnica had a chance to speak with Fire of Love science advisor Lianne Wiberg, who noted that the Kraffts plied their trade without an assist from drone technology or, for that matter, social media.
In an interesting twist, Wiberg — who worked with the Kraffts to mount an exhibit at the Smithsonian in 1989 — found out that Dosa was making a documentary about the Kraffts through an Instagram post.
“I replied to a comment on an Instagram post and Sarah got back to me within a day,” Wiberg recalled. “I said, ‘you are giving me a chance to grieve.’ I worked with them in 1989, then all of a sudden they were gone. They just disappeared from the scene.”
That’s a sharp contrast with today’s grieving process, marked by torrents of social media posts and tribute pages. Wiberg also pointed out that the Kraffts struggled to raise funds for their early ventures, without the advantage of a GoFundMe account and other online fundraising tools
As for the drone-free science, the Kraffts literally lived with their subjects, sometimes camping out in a two-person tent for days and weeks in a row.
“They sought more comfort in nature,” Wiberg said. “They looked for a connection and communion with the earth that they knew was impersonal and dangerous. They just did their own thing. They listened to themselves and to the earth.”
“Technology is going to help, but you have to trust the technology,” Wiberg added, referring to the 1985 eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Columbia. Volcanologists recommended evacuating the population before the eruption, but local officials ignored the warning. After all, the volcano had been dormant for almost 70 years.
Nevado del Ruiz did erupt two months after the initial warnings, sending gigantic lahars — rapid flows of mud and debris — into populated areas, killing 23,000 people.
“Now we have drones, we have acoustic monitors, we can find school children looking at the clock on the classroom wall for evacuation information,” Wiberg noted.
Taming The Geothermal Energy Beast
The other side of the geothermal energy coin is the complacent predictability of underground features that can be channeled into power generation, Iceland being a leading example.
The reliance on existing geology has confined the reach of geothermal energy, but researchers are deploying new tools to expand the opportunities. One example is Washington State, which has received funding from the US Department of Energy to refine its geothermal energy modeling for three specific seismic zones, including the Mount St. Helens zone.
“We are working with partners at AltaRock Energy, BOS Technologies, Temple University, and the U.S. Forest Service,” the Washington Department of Natural Resources explains. “We are also using more advanced techniques to model permeability based on stress and strain parameters in three dimensions.”
As unlikely as it may seem, West Virginia is another region ripe for geothermal development. In August of 2021, the University of West Virginia won a grant from the Energy Department to drill a hole three miles deep into the Earth at a site near Morgantown. Strictly for research purposes, the no-fracking well is expected to yield data on geothermal energy potential sometime this year.
Another unlikely candidate is New York City, where geothermal energy already powers at least 81 sites including the Brooklyn Children’s Museum and the Lion House at the Bronx Zoo. Construction is currently under way on the largest geothermal energy project in New York City history, which will power a 463-unit residential complex in Coney Island.
The emerging area of enhanced geothermal systems could also help expand the reach of geothermal energy in the US. These systems deploy rock formations to build underground reservoirs.
Bring On The Geothermal Heat Pumps
The growing popularity of heat pump technology is another factor helping to push the market for geothermal energy.
In recent years, much of the news has focused on air source heat pumps. Geothermal heat pumps have been getting less attention, but activity in that area is also expected to pick up.
“Even though the installation price of a geothermal system can be several times that of an air-source system of the same heating and cooling capacity, the additional costs may be returned in energy savings in 5 to 10 years, depending on the cost of energy and available incentives in your area,” the Energy Department explains, adding that about 50,000 geothermal heat pumps are installed in the US each year.
Here Comes Texas (Again)
Of course, no mention of geothermal energy is complete without also mentioning the anti-woke, anti-ESG antics of various Republican office holders who have been trying to stem the tide of clean power in their home states and elsewhere.
Some of those states also happen to be up-and-coming hotbeds of geothermal energy activity. One notable example on both accounts is Texas, where the Bureau of Geology at the University of Texas points out that the Lone Star State kicked the US oil and gas industry into high gear in the 20th century, then turned up the heat on wind energy in the 21st century.
“Now we look forward to the next energy revolution, one that Texas could lead for the world—geothermal power anywhere,” they enthuse.
In 2021 the Bureau received funding to conduct research that pushes the envelope on “new-paradigm geothermal” systems.
As the Bureau notes, the hundreds of thousands of derelict oil and gas well pockmarking the Texas landscape could also be repurposed for geothermal energy. Oh the irony, it burns.
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Image courtesy of National Geographic (cropped): “Katia Krafft wearing aluminized suit standing near lava burst at Krafla Volcano, Iceland” (credit: Image’Est).
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