Posting in Energy
Earthquake-causing human activity deserves a closer look.
Earlier this month, a $60 million project to extract renewable energy from the hot bedrock deep beneath Basel, Switzerland, was shut down after a government study determined that earthquakes generated by the project were likely to do millions of dollars in damage each year, the New York Times reported. The project was first suspended in 2006 after it generated earthquakes that caused about $9 million in damage to other structures.
The day after this report, the Times covered the abandonment of a similar project by AltaRock Energy, outside San Francisco, which was attempting to extract vast amounts of renewable energy from deep, hot bedrock. AltaRock had a $6 million grant from the Department of Energy, part of the $440 million the department has put into its geothermal program this year alone, according to the article.
These are devastating turns for those who believe the use of geothermal energy could cut the world's use of emissions-causing fossil fuels. And there is no question that the risks deserve a second look. But when it comes to humans causing earthquakes, geothermal drilling--which involves drilling into hot rock at depths of several kilometers and pumping water into the depths--is just one culprit. (Wired has a good breakdown of all the ways we can cause earthquakes, from coal mining to oil drilling.)
I recently talked to Dr. Christian Klose, who just became a senior research scientist at Think GeoHazards in New York, about human-triggered earthquakes. Previously, Klose worked at Columbia University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
What do you do at Think GeoHazards?
My research focuses on understanding natural hazards and their impacts on human security. We do research proposals and studies on the climate and help our clients manage their risks.
You study earthquakes caused by human actions. So are these still considered “natural” disasters?
It’s an event caused by the natural system, but triggered by human activities. I describe it as geohazards—hazards that can come from the earth. They can be triggered or induced by humans or by nature. Ninety-five percent of all earthquakes are of natural origin and occur in active regions, such as California, Japan, Turkey or the Pacific. Five percent occur in stable regions, and of that percent, you have a fraction that are human-triggered.
How should humans change our behavior to prevent these earthquakes?
I’m not going to come out and say you need to stop that [activity]. I’m saying you need to make an appropriate risk assessment. The goal is for people to understand the geology and understand the coupling of interactions between the human system and natural system. If we assume we can trigger an earthquake, there will be a risk. So to reduce the risk, you reduce the hazards. You decide not to build a dam, or you build a smaller dam, or we can decrease vulnerabilities. Don’t build close to where we can expect earthquakes.
Most of the time we have ignored those issues. When you look at the areas exposed to mining earthquakes—there’s an earthquake, and then afterward we will put some money into getting rid of the damages, but there’s no preemptive measure to make sure it doesn’t happen. Ignoring a problem until it happens is not the best way. I’ve shown this in the Newcastle, Australia earthquake [1989, Richter 5.6, 13 people killed, 160 injured]. This has been a coal-mining region for 200 years. If you do a cost-benefit analysis and look at the money you really make and compare this with the monetary amount of the damages, you end up at $3 billion in damages. These aren’t just little earthquakes and some damages. It can be detrimental.
What’s the difference between an induced earthquake and a triggered earthquake?
Induced earthquakes happen only when humans do engineering, such as when we excavate a mine. They would never happen under natural conditions. If you inject fluid into the rock for hydrocarbon production, you induce tiny earthquakes, and this is expected, for instance, when reservoirs are built. The only question is how big the earthquakes will be. But 40 years ago no one excepted the idea of this.
Triggered earthquakes are natural earthquakes that would have happened under natural conditions, but the question is, when do these natural conditions trigger earthquakes, and how much stress does it take to trigger them? You have to understand the geology to understand where the fault zones are and when was the last earthquake. Then you can come up with physical models that can tell you, for example, if you remove a huge amount of mass from mining, how it affects the earth’s crust. You will never be able to predict an earthquake—the uncertainties are too huge. But you can have a forecast.
Dec 22, 2009
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Ole Rellik sneers because he has a short-term memory. #14 is exactly right: injection at shallow depths is harmless, injection into stable formations at several hundred feet is RELATIVELY harmless. The brand new plant system at the Peppermill resort is nearly a mile deep, but it's unlikely to "cause" an earthquake-- because it's not at a major fault, it's at the "downhill" end of the Moana lane thermal area's underground river. A large earthquake WILL come to Reno, and one "COULD" be provoked by siting a geothermal plant on a fault. But a human-caused Earthquake is extremely unlikely: Just as in SF, any plant which creates a pattern of dangerous-looking tremors during testing wil be shut down. The quake will come, and it will be a "natural" event.
All attainable energy sources from Mother Earth have to be proven as great acts of malice so that the current ultra liberal left wing controlled government can tax you to death to attain said energy. When you voted for CHANGE this crap is what you get!!!
I think this idea is great.We just have to find the right way to do it!We need new sources of energy and if we can get it for free from the earth,we shouldn't reject this idea,after all most great adventures discovered were dangerous.
A Superfund cleanup site in NH used filtered surface runoff water durning the cleanup by injecting it into the water table around the perimiter to drive contamination to a filtering well drilled in the middle of the site. This simple shallow water injection work at less than 300 feet in depth caused hundreds of micro quakes in an area that had not seen a single quake of any scale in over 50 years. One quake in the 3+ range happened near the end of the project and not a single micro quake has hit the area starting 6 months after the work ended. It's been nearly 5 years and no micro quakes.
Here in Northern Nevada we have numerous geothermal power plants on line. The last earthquake in the area was in the 1950s, long before the first plant was constructed. The plants we have do NOT inject, they tap the natural occurring heat vents. I have also been to Iceland where they generate all their power from geothermal sources. They actually have seen a decrease in eathquake severity and frequency. Of course none of this has to do with this article because this author isn't talking about the same thing. Just another fear monger.
If we continually create small earthquakes in geosensitive areas and thus release the earths tension buildup, isn't that much better than waiting for a natural BIG earthquake? Just a thought...
Say, is it possible to have this text editor changed one doesn't need to look at their input with a magnifying glass? In a dark room?
I believe that AltaRock terminated their attempt to install hot rock geothermal at The Geysers because they were unable to penetrate a layer of very hard rock that they encountered. The induced tremor issue might have played a role in their decision, but it was not "the reason". There are at least three separate companies working on the problem of drilling the larger diameter holes needed for dry rock. Standard oil drilling rigs are not up to the job. What make most sense (to me) at this time is to do what the Australians are doing and developing dry rock in more remote locations where tremors won't shake urban areas. The installation Basel was ill-considered, drilling in a known fault zone, next to a city, and a city that had not been earthquake retrofitted. (Remember, the tremors that Basel experienced were similar to the tremors that Nevada and California experience multiple times each week. Difference is, we brought our buildings up to a code where they don't do damage.) Best to go out into the desert, close to an existing transmission line and acquire our chops....
@Ablediver: " If the geothermal device used a closed loop system rather then injecting and or removing water, the reduced heat would stabalize faults not induce slippage. I cannot understand why critics cannot put 2 + 2 together and understand this?" Well, because they know better. First, it's daft to drill that deep. Choose somewhere with natural geothermal activity like Yellowstone, and only tap off the surface heat. The problem with your theory is you leave out crustal plate movement. The plate WILL move. We certainly couldn't stop it. But cooling a fault point might cause it to stick until it moved suddenly. That would be bad. It's a pity we can't reverse the process. Adding gigawatts of energy to the San Andreas fault might make it slip a bit more easily; instead of intermittent movements that cause earthquakes, we'd have constant creeping movement nobody would notice.
There are lots of other forms of geothermal. Just take a trip over to the Water Furnace web site: http://www.waterfurnace.com/
I lived in Hawaii for two years. They have a geothermal project over there. It belches sulfur dioxide into the air 24-7, and the area around it is scorched by sulfuric acid. Maybe not so green bra?
this is pure bull shit. It is based upon antiquated technology. It is a well known physical principle that reducing the temperature of a material makes it less reactive. If the geothermal device used a closed loop system rather then injecting and or removing water, the reduced heat would stabalize faults not induce slippage. I cannot understand why critics cannot put 2 + 2 together and understand this?
This article certainly sounds alarmist given the earth releases energy in this manner naturally. Surely regular energy releases from seismically active areas will reduce the prospect of a major earthquake as the energy is being leached in a controlled manner rather than being stored until a major release is necessary. If you want to reduce carbon emissions then geothermal and nuclear power sources are the immediately available alternatives capable of meeting current demands. Wind and solar haven't the capacity to meet demand.
I think your title is involuntarily misleading as it should say "deep geothermal power", not just geothermal energy. Your article should clarify that there is another kind of geothermal energy that is perfectly safe: geothermal heat pump systems, used for space heating and cooling and water heating. There are millions of those systems installed across the world. The drilling only goes as deep as 400 feet, and with some systems (see EarthLinked Technologies www.earthlinked.com - as a disclosure, I am proud to consult for them) it is only about 100 feet. Those systems use the solar energy captured by the earth (50% of it is captured), and are called geothermal as well for that reason.
What is being described here is not the same as ordinary geothermal, yet this article starts out presenting them as the same. Drilling down and pumping anything into a fault line? Stupid. Putting a power plant on top of a natural vent? Smart. It's like lumping together all kinds of drinking, not differentiating between the consumption of spring water and bleach. Yes they're both liquid and you can drink them but one brings you life where the other brings you death. Yet you wouldn't write a headline saying, "Drinking liquids causes death!" Geothermal power generation does not cause earthquakes, idiots drilling into the earth is what can cause them.
It's amazing the number of educated people who are totally lacking in common sense. There is cause and effect to everything we do. If you take heat away from anywhere you are cooling the area. Geothermal only works without endangering anything when the heat is renewable. So deep drilling is a serious risk as the earth's core is not increasing in temperature. Recovering heat from volcanic activity at or near the surface is renewable but not when it is extracted from deep below the crust. Extracting heat from the ground near the surface due to the sun's rays is renewable. No matter how we extract energy we must always be careful not to upset nature's balance. The balance has been upset which is resulting in climate change. Something we need to alleviate like we did with the ozone layer at the poles. It is far better to avoid upsetting the balance then to spend billions later trying to correct the imbalance.
Is tapping the Earth for its heat energy a good idea? Consider that when the Earth's core loses enough heat; the protective electromagnetic field generated by the core will collapse which will allow harmful radiation to reach the Earth's biosphere and kill all life on planet Earth. Granted this will not happen in my lifetime...