New research produced by Southern Methodist University’s (SMU) Geothermal Laboratory suggests the temperature of the earth beneath West Virginia is significantly higher than previously estimated and is capable of supporting commercial baseload geothermal-energy production.

“Geothermal is an extremely reliable form of energy, and it generates power 24/7, which makes it a baseload source, like coal or nuclear,” said David Blackwell, Hamilton Professor of Geophysics and director of the SMU Geothermal Laboratory.

The SMU Geothermal Laboratory has increased its estimate of West Virginia’s geothermal generation potential to 18,890 megawatts (MW). The new estimate represents a 75 percent increase over estimates in MIT’s 2006 “The Future of Geothermal Energy” report and exceeds the state’s total current generating capacity, which is primarily coal-based, of 16,350 MW.

Temperatures below the Earth almost always increase with depth, but the rate of increase (the thermal gradient) varies due to factors such as the thermal properties of the rock formations.

The West Virginia discovery is the result of new detailed mapping and interpretation of temperature data derived from oil, gas and thermal-gradient wells, part of an ongoing project to update the Geothermal Map of North America that Blackwell produced with colleague Maria Richards in 2004.
“By adding 1,455 new thermal data points from oil, gas and water wells to our geologic model of West Virginia, we’ve discovered significantly more heat than previously thought,” Blackwell said. “The existing oil and gas fields in West Virginia provide a geological guide that could help reduce uncertainties associated with geothermal exploration and also present an opportunity for co-producing geothermal electricity from hot waste fluids generated by existing oil and gas wells.”

The high temperature zones beneath West Virginia revealed by the new mapping are concentrated in the eastern portion of the state. Starting at depths of 4.5 kilometers (more than 15,000 feet), temperatures reach higher than 150°C (300°F), which is hot enough for commercial geothermal-power production.

“The early West Virginia research is very promising,” -Blackwell said, “but we still need more information about local geological conditions to refine estimates of the magnitude, distribution and commercial significance of their geothermal-resource.”
Blackwell thinks the geothermal finding opens exciting possibilities for the region.

“The proximity of West Virginia’s large geothermal resource to East Coast population centers has the potential to enhance U.S. energy security, reduce CO2 emissions, and develop high-paying, clean-energy jobs in West Virginia,” he said.