SALT LAKE CITY — Imagine having an unlimited supply of clean, renewable energy at your feet that could revolutionize the nation's — and even the world's — approach to turning on the lights in billions of homes and powering up economies across the globe.
A Utah project playing out near a little town of less than 1,500 residents could transform what is only imagination into a formidable reality by using the first-of-its-kind technology that reaches thousands upon thousands of feet underground to harness geothermal resources on a commercial scale.
The possibilities are endless if the technology is proven successful, and the project in Milford, Beaver County, spearheaded by the University of Utah's Energy & Geoscience Institute is being watched by a lot of counties — Germany, Japan, China, the United Kingdom.
"There's worldwide interest," said Joseph Moore, principal investigator of the Utah Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy, or what they call FORGE, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy at a tune of some $200 million.
The project hit a milestone recently with the start of the drilling of one of two deep, deviated wells that ultimately reach depths of 10,800 feet underground and are seeking to capture geothermal energy bubbling at 437 degrees.
The enhanced geothermal technology works like a radiator, if you will.
The well will go vertically to a depth of 6,000 feet and make a 65-degree turn. The total length of the well will be approximately 11,000 feet with the "toe" — or the end of the well — reaching a vertical depth of 8,500 feet.
This well will serve as the conduit of injected water, at 2,000 gallons per minute, to be circulated through the fractures it makes in the hard granite underground rock. The second deviated well will then bring that water up, only to be injected again, over and over.
This is the first project of its kind to tackle this challenge while drilling in hot, hard crystalline granite.
Ultimately the idea is to use this "radiator" process to generate steam to power a turbine to turn it into energy.
This is the first research attempt to harness geothermal energy using such a drastic angle of 65 degrees, Moore said.
"Most geothermal wells are pretty close to vertical and about 30 to 40 degrees."
While geothermal resources across the United States are being used for energy — Utah ranks third in the country for its geothermal energy output — no one has been quite able to figure out how to make it economically viable on a commercial scale.
That challenge is what is fueling the U.S. Department of Energy's interest and funding. It picked Utah out of four other competitors across the country to test this technology and to take it to market.
"What we are doing is engineering a geothermal reservoir," Moore said.
He added: "Our goal is not to generate electricity but to prove the technology so we can take that technology to Salt Lake City, to New York, Iowa or to Mumbai (India.)"
Just imagine getting all the energy you needed, anywhere you wanted. I guess that is the bottom line with this project.
–Joseph Moore, principal investigator of the Utah Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy
The project has the enthusiastic support of not only the federal government but state agencies such as the Governor's Office of Energy Development, the little town of Beaver, Millard County and others.
Moore says this is why you, the average energy consumer, should care.
"Let's say we extract 2% of the geothermal energy that is between 2 and 6 miles down. We would have more than 2,000 times the amount of energy used in the United States per year. Just imagine how much energy that is stored below our feet that is virtually free. It is just up to us how to extract it. Conceptually that blows my mind," Moore said.
That amount of energy is so large, Moore said, it dwarfs in comparison to other resources such as wind and solar — renewable energy workhorses that admittedly now take up a larger racetrack in terms of the ground they occupy.
While solar and wind farms have a generally large geographic footprint, the potential for this technology is at a much reduced scale.
For example, the test site about 10 miles away from Milford occupies about a quarter of an acre, and the entire demonstration site encompasses just a few acres.
"What could be a better power source? I am not limited to where I can put it. I could put it in the governor's mansion's parking lot," Moore said.
That is something to consider, if FORGE proves out.
"Just imagine getting all the energy you needed, anywhere you wanted. I guess that is the bottom line with this project," Moore said.