University of Nevada gets $10 million DOE grant for geothermal energy exploration

Water Sampling

The Great Basin Center for Geothermal Energy at the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology is leading a Department of Energy (DOE) project that aims to accelerate discoveries of new, commercially viable hidden geothermal systems in the Great Basin region of the Western United States.

DOE has awarded the University of Nevada, Reno program $10 million to build a playbook for the industry that includes combining play fairway analysis, machine learning and advanced geostatistics and into an exploration toolkit.

In July, DOE announced that five projects will receive up to $28 million to promote the advancement of the next generation of geothermal energy technologies. The University of Nevada, Reno was one of those projects.

To work on the project, director of the Great Basin Center for Geothermal Energy, Bridget Ayling, assembled scientists who have worked in geothermal related areas for more than 20 years. She said it is a strong team of more than 30 collaborators at 12 partner institutions, including public and private organizations, such as the United States Geological Survey, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Utah Geological Survey, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories and Idaho Geological Survey. Many team members have previously collaborated on geothermal projects.

The project aims to drive down costs and risks associated with the discovery of hidden geothermal systems in the western USA. Hidden systems are systems that show no surface characteristics such as hot springs or steam vents. This will help the geothermal industry as they develop more renewable energy resources for the grid around the west, according to the University.

The study area is a geothermal province with more than 1,200 megawatts (MW) of existing installed capacity from about 28 geothermal systems. Studies indicate far greater potential for conventional hydrothermal systems in the region, but most of these resources are hidden.

“This is not just a Nevada based project, it includes most of the Great Basin region, and will include studies and drilling in neighboring states. This is a rare opportunity to do extensive work in a larger area, to merge our expertise and learn from four regions,” Ayling said.

Around half of the DOE award, $5 million, will be used to drill geothermal exploration wells that will likely be between 1,000 and 3,000 feet deep.

The project builds off the Nevada Play Fairway project that ran from 2015 to 2019 that under the direction of Jim Faulds, director of the University’s Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology; a research and public service unit in the College of Science at the University.

The regional study area of the Basin and Range province stretches from the Sierra Nevada on the west to the Wasatch Front on the east, including the most tectonically active parts of the Great Basin Region. This includes much of the incipient transform plate boundary of the Walker Lane, which accommodates about 20% of the dextral motion between the North American and Pacific plates in the western Great Basin Region. There is strong correlation between active tectonism and relatively high-temperature geothermal systems in this region.

“There are some geologic similarities throughout the Great Basin, but we will account for the differences; it’s okay to find sites that are different, it will help the outcomes,” Ayling said. “The key output for the geothermal community includes software tools and algorithms and favorability maps, with a web portal that anyone can download and use the data we generate.”

The group from the Great Basin Center for Geothermal Energy and Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology has experts in geologic modeling, structural geology, geodesy, geostatistics, geochemistry and database management and dissemination. The project team also includes:

  1. Geologic expertise at the Idaho Geological Survey, Utah Geological Survey, National Renewable Energy Laboratory and USGS;
  2. Geophysical specialists at the USGS, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, Innovative Geothermal Ltd., Utah Geological Survey and Hi-Q Geophysical;
  3. Heat flow specialists from Southern Methodist University;
  4. Drilling experts at National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Cyrq and Geothermal Resource Group;
  5. Machine learning expertise at Aprovechar Lab L3C;
  6. Value of Information expertise at W Team Geosolutions; and
  7. Geothermal development specialists from National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

“We stand at a major crossroads in the advancement of geothermal technologies. Major achievements have been made in play fairway analysis, 3D and conceptual modeling, resource capacity estimation, machine learning, the application of advanced geostatistics and value of information analysis. But these techniques have yet to be combined into one over-arching best-practices workflow. Our ambitious project proposes to fully integrate these techniques to develop a comprehensive, exploration toolkit.”

“Nevada’s work to support geothermal energy plays a critical part in the development of viable, renewable sources of energy to power our state while protecting our environment,” said Senator Jackie Rosen in a news release about the DOE awards. “This grant funding, which will be used to support investment in geothermal research and development, will help to create a cleaner future for the Silver State.”

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