Swiss Geothermal Project Shut Down Because of Quake Threat [UPDATE]

Swiss authorities have shutdown a geothermal project, poised to generate electricity by tapping heat from the earth’s core, after studies determined the project could trigger earthquakes and cause millions of dollars of damages to area properties each year.

The utility-scale geothermal project was being developed by former oil man Markus Häring, , and is located in the city of Basel, in northern Switzerland. It was actually shutdown in 2006 after it generated earthquakes that did not injure anyone but caused about $9 million in damage to homes and other structures.

This is a blow for backers of utility-scale geothermal power. Geothermal generation is well established, Iceland generates all of its power from it, but most of the output is small and taps into known sources of heat. The notion of drilling directly to the earth’s seething bedrock is cutting edge and unproven technology.

In Northern California Google-backed AltaRock Energy is looking to generate hundred of megawatts of electricity by using a process known as Engineered Geothermal Systems (EGS) which consists of drilling deep into the earth’s core, fracturing hot rocks and injecting water to produce steam. The steam is then piped to power nearby electricity turbines — see below for a clear visual of how this process works.

It sounds really promising but like Switzerland there have been concerns that drilling so deep down into the earth’s core can cause earthquakes,  and last September AltaRock suspended drilling at its test site.

Update | 9:30 AM: On the Swiss project, backers of utility-scale geothermal noted that the study focused narrowly on the Basel project and that it did contained some positive conclusions. The New York Times writes, citing an English translation of the report, that Basel residents would have felt between 14 to 170 earthquakes over the project’s 30-year life span and likely none of these earthquakes would have cause bodily harm.

Geothermal, unlike wind or solar power, is constant and it’s cheap. That means it could act as baseload power, some even argue it could replace coal-fired power plants.

Picture Credit: AltaRock Energy and Department of Energy

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