Fallon vying with Utah site for geothermal research lab

This site near Fallon is in the running to become a Department of Energy underground laboratory to conduct research on enhanced geothermal systems.

This site near Fallon is in the running to become a Department of Energy underground laboratory to conduct research on enhanced geothermal systems.

FALLON — A decision could be made by June 2018 on Fallon being named the top location for an underground laboratory to conduct research on enhanced geothermal systems.

Douglas Blankenship, manager of Geothermal Research and Development at Sandia National Laboratories, told Churchill County Commissioners in November that research also is being conducted at a site near Milford, Utah.

In his presentation of phase 3 of the Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy (FORGE), Blankenship said the U.S. Department of Energy will be selecting a location for a National Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) field laboratory. Once the site is selected, the field laboratory, which is funded by DOE, will begin a five-year research project to further study EGS, the means by which resources are accessed from deep beneath the surface of the earth where there are hot rocks ideal for geothermal wells but little naturally occurring liquid to generate steam.

Blankenship said the Fallon site has plenty of room and infrastructure to support the EGS. He said the Governor’s Office of Energy also contributed $1 million toward the study. Sandia National Laboratories is working on the 1.7-square-mile Fallon project, which is the Ormat site located south of the Naval Air Station Fallon runway toward Macari Lane. To date, four deep exploration wells have been drilled and an additional 15.4 square miles will be used for instrumentation and monitoring of FORGE activities.

According to provided background information, “The Fallon FORGE site excels because it has a target zone in crystalline basement rock at depths between 5,000 and 7,500 feet that has temperatures greater than 350 degrees (F) and low permeability. The DOE considers these characteristics to be ideal for implanting the FORGE underground laboratory.”

The University of Utah is working the Milford site. The DOE, with the support of the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), awarded funding to these two teams in 2016 after a competitive first phase of research to evaluate potential EGS underground research sites. Additionally, the FORGE team is also working with the Bureau of Land Management’s Stillwater Field Office and Naval Air Station Fallon to prepare environmental documentation.

When Fallon was named one of two sites, retired U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, who worked with local and state officials, said, “Nevada will be the perfect location for the Department of Energy’s new Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal (FORGE) laboratory. The nation’s lab for advancing geothermal energy belongs in Nevada and will further establish Nevada as a leader in renewable energy. Enhanced Geothermal Systems are the next frontier in clean energy, and they are an enormous opportunity for the Silver State’s economic growth.”

According to the county’s agenda report, the BLM and FORGE team will prepare an environmental assessment, but the BLM is the lead agency because most drilling activity is occurring on government land, and it also administers the subsurface geothermal resource. The public environment assessment draft could be available sometime in January 2018 followed by a 30-day public review period. The final assessment is scheduled to be completed in March.

Blankenship, who gave a slide presentation, said the EGS will artificially create permeability through hydraulic stimulation of high-temperate, low-permeability rock, transfer heat to land surface by circulating water through the fracture network via injection and production boreholes, and provide for more than 100 gigawatts (GW), the equivalent of 100 million homes, according to the DOE. Permeability is defined as a measure of the ability of a porous material (often, a rock or an unconsolidated material) to allow fluids to pass through it.

Blankenship touted the Fallon site as being an idea location, and providing existing infrastructure, a long history of exploration, temperatures, permeability, no potential crystalline targets and reservoirs and no hydrothermal system. He also vowed in his presentation that FORGE will not draw water from Fallon’s basalt aquifer, impact Naval Air Station Fallon’s mission or increase induced seismicity.

“What would give us our odds?” Commission Chairman Pete Olsen asked.

Blankenship said the Fallon site has provided more data than Milford and the location and infrastructure are better. He said, however, the final decision may come down to politics although GOED’s $1million given to the project is a plus.

“If the site moves forward,” said Blankenship, “researchers from all over the world will be coming here.”

Since work began in Fallon, the FORGE team has participated in several events to discuss the benefits of the project to include the Fallon Cantaloupe Festival and Geothermal Day at the Nevada State Capitol.


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