California State University, Long Beach
Inside CSULB Logo

Geothermal Energy Grant Tops $1 Million

Published: January 15, 2015

Geological Sciences’ Matt Becker, the Conrey Endowed Chair of Hydrology at CSULB since 2008, has received more than $1 million in grant support over the last four years to fund research into geothermal energy that is as deeply rooted in the state as the resources themselves.

From completion in 1955 of the nation’s first modern geothermal well “Magma No. 1” at the Northern California Geysers field, geothermal energy has offered the potential of producing clean, seemingly limitless power. However, geothermal energy has yet to be a major player in U.S. energy resources. Geothermal satisfies only 6 percent of California’s and 0.3 percent of the nation’s electrical energy consumption.

The Department of Energy (DOE) awarded Becker and his colleagues a $579,980 project in 2010 followed by another award of $505,839 this year.

“I think what the Department of Energy recognizes is the relevance of our research,” said Becker.

It was his 10 years of research into fractured rock hydrology at the University at Buffalo that first led Becker into the study of geothermal energy. “I’ve looked at how water flows through bedrock for 25 years,” he recalled. “But when I moved to California, all of a sudden, there was geothermal energy. It turns out both fields share the same problem, “How does water flow through bedrock?”

Becker is interested in connectivity between geothermal wells and how to measure it.

“As usual in science, when you discover something new, you discover that it is hard,” he said. “When water flows through fractures, it doesn’t want to flow evenly. It follows channels and short circuits. You have to understand the rocks and fractures before you start putting in wells. We used ground-penetrating radar to trace how that water flows through fractures at our research site. Our next challenge is to design tests to measure connectivity so that we can work around the natural flow patterns.”

Becker believes that geothermal energy holds great promise.

“Natural gas may be more accessible now but it is not renewable,” he said. “The Massachusetts Institute of Technology issued a report in 2006 on the potential for enhanced geothermal resources that argued it could produce the entire electrical needs of the U.S. for the next 2,000 years. The total available energy is 200 zeta-joules. We’re sitting on a huge hot rock that is the Earth. There is an enormous potential for energy there.”

Enhanced geothermal technology is the process of creating permeable reservoirs in rock that are hot but dry. The technology for creating enhanced geothermal reservoirs is similar to the hydraulic “fracking” technique used by the petroleum industry but it is typically accomplished without chemicals. Well connectivity is the limiting factor in these types of developments, which is the subject of Becker’s research.

Becker urges greater government support for geothermal energy research. Sometimes geothermal wells are “dry holes” and do not pay off.

“Geothermal companies do not have the deep pockets of an Exxon or Chevron to weather poor investments,” he said. “The government needs to step in and assume some of that risk. There has been an increase in geothermal energy research but it has been slow. With all the talk about renewables, why is it that every time you hear the word `renewable,’ people mean solar or wind power but rarely is it geothermal?” The Department of Energy’s 2014 research budget for geothermal is $46 million compared with $257 million for solar power.

X
PHOTO BY DAVID J. NELSON
Matt Becker

Becker looks to new power plant technology to revive interest in geothermal research.

“There is new technology that can use water that is only 50 degrees centigrade instead of 150-180 degrees which is what they use in the old-fashioned plants,” he said. “Today, technology can use water that is only as hot as tap water instead of between 150-180 degrees. Today’s technology can exchange that 50-degree hot water with another fluid and extract the heat which turns steam turbines.”

CSULB graduate students gain an advantage in the job market thanks to Becker’s geothermal research.

“Their research in groundwater flow is sufficient for them to switch to geothermal research. We are training our students to be ready to work as geologists. The first DOE grant funded two master’s students, one of whom now studies geothermal energy at Cornell,” he said. The current grant will fund two more master’s students.

“We have the facilities to do this research,” he added. “The lab space we have here is not far from what is available at the UC level. We are competitive at that level. Geothermal resources are Californian and so should be the research. Geothermal research should be a CSU effort. We should be in on the ground floor. There is nothing like what we do here at the other CSU schools or at the UC.”

Becker earned his B.S. in Geology from Michigan State University and his M.S. and Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin.

Becker believes that geothermal research will take off in the next 10 years.

“It will finally get the attention it deserves. Certainly in California, there will be more development. I’m certain of that,” he said. “What I want to make sure of is we prepare students to be able to jump into the industry when the time comes. I think we can fill a niche and train students who are competitive with anyone.”