Hot Technology: Volcano Power


By Cory Bickel

The next generation of geothermal power may come from one of the most destructive and fiery natural disasters — volcanoes.

A company in Oregon is testing a new technology to harness the power of the Newberry Volcano to generate electricity. In AltaRock Energy’s Enhanced Geothermal System, (or EGS), cold, pressurized water is pumped down wells approximately two miles underground that were drilled about four miles from the center of the Newberry Volcano. Because the rocks underground are heated by the volcano, they can turn the water to steam, which can be used to drive turbines and produce electricity. The pressurized water also helps to break up the rocks near the well in a process called hydraulic shearing, allowing them to heat the water more efficiently and making the process more productive.

Shaking Up Trouble?

Residents near the volcano may be a little concerned that the mini-earthquakes, or “microseismic events,” generated during hydraulic shearing could cause the volcano to erupt. But independent studies have been done to demonstrate the safety of the project, and volcanoes have already safely been used to generate geothermal power in Hawaii, Iceland, Indonesia and the Philippines. This process is different from “fracking” used for oil and natural gas because much lower water pressures are used, no chemicals are added to the water that is pumped in, and it’s done at a greater depth far below groundwater sources. EGS is much cleaner and safer than the controversial fracking techniques.

The Future of Geothermal Power 

If AltaRock’s tests are successful, EGS technology can be used to drive power plants in many locations, not just near volcanoes. Rocks very deep underground are heated by the earth’s interior, so there are many potential sites where EGS can be used. A volcano next door certainly heats things up faster, so the Newberry site is an ideal testing place. If the technology is as efficient as predicted, EGS could be as cost-efficient as using fossil fuels and much cleaner and more sustainable, potentially supplying up to 10% of the United State’s energy needs.

Classroom Discussion

  • Can you think of other ways to generate electricity using the power of volcanoes?
  • If you lived next to the Newberry Volcano, would you feel comfortable with the project? What other concerns might you have?