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West Virginia Said to Be Considering a Geothermal Energy Future

A Google-funded study, which found enormous geothermal potential in West Virginia, is reinivogorating the push to develop the resource in the coal state

By Maria Gallucci

Mar 14, 2011
Geothermal power plant

Coal-dependent West Virginia could become the first state outside of the American West to tap its geothermal resources to generate energy, according to researchers ramping up their work on hot-rock mining.

State geologist Michael Hohn and Brian Anderson, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at (WVU), are leading the reinvigorated charge to "mine" the state's renewable energy resource after a last year found subterranean temperatures to be significantly higher than once thought.

"Within the next ten years, there could be a demonstration-type project in West Virginia to show that geothermal utilization could be successful," Anderson told SolveClimate News, adding that additional projects could pop up within 15 years.

Geothermal energy in West Virginia is currently used for small-scale heating systems, but only at residential and commercial levels.

Hohn, who directs the state's , said that just a few years ago  geothermal was barely on the government's radar screen. Initiatives to explore the resource were sidelined by oil, natural gas and coal projects, the state's economic bread and butter.

West Virginia is the nation's second-largest coal producing state behind Wyoming. It exports of its coal and half of its natural gas to Eastern and Midwestern states, as well as globally, making it the second-highest net exporter of electricity nationwide behind Pennsylvania.

Things changed on the geothermal front in October 2010, when an analysis by the Dallas-based , part of Southern Methodist University (SMU), challenged past research on reserves.

Earlier studies, including a by the (MIT) that Anderson co-authored, gave the state little reason to pursue the resource after finding weak potential in West Virginia, Hohn said.

75% More Reserves than MIT Estimate

Funded by grants from , the Geothermal Laboratory found the state's geothermal generation potential to be at 18,890 megawatts, a 75 percent rise from MIT's earlier estimates.

That figure is more than West Virginia's total current generating capacity of 16,350 megawatts — almost all of which comes from coal-fired plants, the report says. 

State officials have since expressed a heightened interest in exploring the renewable resource as an addition to West Virginia's energy export industry. Still, no one expects geothermal power to compete with cheaper coal-fired electricity — even as fossil fuel prices tick up.

In 2009, average electricity prices in West Virginia increased 18 percent, compared with 1.5 percent nationally, as coal generation fell by 24 percent, the Washington-based .

Last year, however, electricity rates in the state fell by 2.5 percent, due mostly in part to a rate reduction for natural gas, state regulators.

West Virginia does have a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) that requires investor-owned utilities to generate 25 percent of retail electricity sales from alternative and renewable energy sources by 2025. But that percentage almost exclusively targets so-called clean coal technologies, though observers say it could make way for geothermal energy as well.

If Only It Was Cost-Effective...

I think it's a very exciting

I think it's a very exciting prospect that one out of two of our nation's largest coal producing state's is seriously considering the use of geothermal energy!  It is a great resource which is reliable and sustainable for many generations.  I also think it is great that many Americans are now being exposed to a green-concious resource that is renewed at the same time it is being used.

I wonder what type of new policies Washington can enact to provide it's country with a cleaner, sustainable resource.  Geothermal energy is a great way for our nation to break free and declare it's independence from fossil fuels and foriegn oil.  To be able to tap into our own resource located just under us is a way to provide unlimited amounts of energy, while also saving us billions of dollars in the future.  On the private scale, those that own rights to oil and coal will need to clearly state that the soil under which the oil and coal lie also belongs to them.  It may be one way to avoid political disputes in the future.

Individual home owners can also benefit from geothermal energy in the form of heating and cooling of their house. Many on the west coast already use geothermal heating, cooling, and energy for their homes.  Others are signing up for the ecofriendly option through companies like Egg Systems, where you can have individual units set up through your house. Check out   Many articles out there say that the cost is too high, however, what is first put down to install a new system is minimal compared to the gains later on.  Not only does geothermal systems pay for themselves in about 2 years, but the sustainable and reliable source is a constant for many generations after it is implamented. Once the system is in place, everytime an individual uses heat, air, or electricity, they are giving back to the earth at the same time. 

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