Hot Rockin’

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Published on Peak Surfer on August 7, 2016


Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner


"All that is necessary to open up unlimited resources of power throughout the world is to find some economic and speedy way of sinking deep shafts." — Nikola Tesla, Our Future Motive Power, 1931



Like many in the Peak Everything/Age of Limits psychographic, we find ourselves rolling our eyes whenever we hear techno-utopians describing AI implants, self-driving Teslas and longevity DNA-splices. We know all too well that each Google search uses enough energy to boil a cup of water, and that the average cellphone adds one ton of carbon to the atmosphere each year – roughly 3 jet passenger trips back and forth between New York and Cancun.

The insularity of Silicon Valley leads to confirmation bias, to the point where someone like Kevin Kelly, in a recent Long Now talk, can describe the diversification of Artificial Smartness as "alien intelligences" without grasping that we have, right now living amongst us, vastly diverse typologies of intelligence in the biological world, but that our overconsuming, polluting technosphere is killing them off in the Sixth Mass Extinction before we even grok their quantum entanglement.

In Kelly's view we will soon be tapping into artificial, alien intellect like we do electricity or wifi. We will become cyber-centaurs — co-dependent humans and AIs. All of us will need to perpetually upgrade just to stay in the game. And power-up too.

Groan. The digital divide on steroids.

We've opined in many posts here that we thought a rubber-road interface would soon be upon this kind of techonarcissism. Limits will be in the driver's seat again. But oddly enough, it might not be the energy shortfall that pitches all that Teslarati into the ditch.

There is no shortage of energy and there never has been.

Take it back an Ice Age or two. So we discovered fire. Get over it! Being stupid apes, we have become completely obsessed with fire. So now we are burning down the house.

All around us there are much more abundant forms of energy than fire. Consider the gravitational pull of the moon that raises oceans. Consider the spin of the Earth, or the latent heat within its slowly cooling core. Who needs dilithium crystals? We travel through space aboard a dynamo.

Nicola Tesla

In the eight years since the post below was originally published in the summer of 2008, it has received a grand total of 68 page views, many of which were doubtless our own. Not wanting to see such gems disappear into the akashic records without at least a few more reads, we're republishing in this summer re-run series.

Bear in mind that Nicola Tesla was a steampunk. In Iceland we can see steam and hydrogen being generated by geothermal heat, but the Teslovian technology being applied — pumped water and steam — is inefficient and self-defeating. It sets up a depletion curve — years to decades — because it cools the magma. Apply today's dielectric alloys instead of steam and you can imagine live current from the temperature differential without cooling the Earth below. But have a look.

Hot Rockin'

Drill, Drill, Drill say the Republicans
Drill, Drill, Drill say the Democrats
Drill, Drill, Drill says McCain
Drill, Drill, Drill says Obama
It polls well.
And, meanwhile, the climate just goes to Hell.

It is interesting to see the major oil companies take on a really tough challenge, like drilling deep continental or deep ocean sites. In order to drill the Bakken formation, where gigatons of carbon deposits are entombed beneath the wheat fields of North Dakota, Montana, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, they are going to have to go very deep, into very hard and hot rock.

Even tougher challenges await Chevron's mega-well, Jack 2 in the Gulf of Mexico, or Petrobras' Saudi-scale Tupi or Carioca fields in the equatorial Atlantic off Brazil. Individual wells in those fields are expected to run $180 million to $200 million each, assuming Big Oil can even solve the impressive technical issues.

Engineers are estimating three decades will be needed to develop alloys for drills and pipes that can withstand the heat 2 to 6 miles down, with 18,000 pounds per square inch of pressure, and temperatures above 500° Fahrenheit (260°C).

Two years ago, Exxon Mobil and Chevron saw diamond-crusted drill bits disintegrate and steel pipes crumple when they attempted to tap deep deposits in the outer continental shelf. Anadarko Petroleum is successfully extracting natural gas under a mere 8,960 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico, where pressure measures 3,069 pounds per square inch, but it costs a lot to keep replacing imploded joints and ruptured seals.

Pumping oil from the Brazilian fields, parts of which are 32,000 feet (10,000 m) below the surface, will require drilling more than three times the depth of the Anadarko wells and almost twice the world’s deepest Gulf wells, in the Tahiti lease, which cost Chevron $4.7 billion to produce.

But here is the irony. At those depths, the heat is a constant. In energy output worldwide, it measures in the exoWatt range. It could power everything. And you don’t have to sail halfway across the Gulf of Mexico, down into the South Atlantic, or up to the North Pole to find it. Wherever you are on Earth, it is right below you.

We’ve known about this energy source, deep geothermal, for centuries, and we have known how to go about harnessing it, big time, for decades. In 1932, Nicola Tesla wrote in The New York Times, “It is noteworthy that …  in 1852 Lord Kelvin called attention to natural heat as a source of power available to Man. But, contrary to his habit of going to the bottom of every subject of his investigations, he contented himself with the mere suggestion.”

Tesla went on, “The arrangement of one of the great terrestrial-heat power plants of the future (illustration). Water is circulated to the bottom of the shaft, returning as steam to drive the turbine, and then returned to liquid form in the condenser, in an unending cycle…. The internal heat of the earth is great and practically inexhaustible….”

Karl Grossman produced a piece on it for WVVH-TV in Long Island. You can see that on YouTube. An MIT study in 2007 estimated you could produce 100 GWe (the equivalent of 1000 coal plants) for less than the cost of a single coal plant.

So why can’t we see the forest for the trees?

11 Responses to Hot Rockin’

  • SomeoneInAsia says:

    Geothermal power sounds good until one ponders the question of maintenance. As the passage itself points out, really deep wells can cost billions, and the hardware needs to keep on being replaced, again at high cost. Also, can you use geothermal power itself to build and maintain geothermal plants? Or do you need fossil fuels? If you need fossil fuels, then aren't geothermal plants mere fossil fuel extenders? Finally, can you operate transportation vehicles using geothermal power?

    Tesla's dream seems to me like another false hope.

    • barry says:

      Yes, drilling a really deep well under thousands of feet of water in the ocean can cost a lot.
       However; if one reads the article, the idea to drill for geothermal energy does not require drilling under the ocean.
      Drilling under one's own house on land pretty much anywhere will work. So the commentator above did a poor job of comprehending the article.

      Actually there is no need to drill anymore wells to access geothermal. The oil industry has already drilled millions of holes deep into the earth. As the oil runs out from each well, the well can be converted to use as a geothermal energy source.

      There is also no need to send water down and back up the well to get the heat out.

      Carbon fiber nanotubes have an interesting charactersitic that solves the problem of getting the heat up from thousands of feet below. A carbon fiber nanao tube will have almost the same temperature at each end. In other words a bundle of carbon fiber nanotubes can be lowered into an old oil well to act as a permanent heat conductor to bring up the geothermal heat to the surface. Energy "crisis" solved.

      Anybody got a real problem that needs solved?


      • SomeoneInAsia says:

        The issues I raised regarding whether fossil fuels are still needed for maintaining geothermal plants, and whether transportation (which takes up more than half of all the energy used by modern industrial 'civilization') can draw upon geothermal energy (which is non-portable, unlike oil), are left unaddressed by the above commentator. It's also a bit of a stretch on one credibility to think that such a source of energy wouldn't have been tapped into already if it were THAT readily available. (Just go to any old oil well and voila, you've found tons of untapped geothermal energy sitting there? Yeah, right. And no need to send water down and back up to extract the energy? Brilliant.)

        Quite evidently the commentator above did a poor job of comprehending my comment. To say nothing of having a proper grasp of the facts.

        • barry says:

          Ok, someone in asia. I didnt know i was supposed to be responding to your post line by line as if it were an affidavit! I didn't do a poor job of comprehending your initial post. I was only pointing out some exceptions i have to what you said, not rebutting everything you said.

          To follow up and clarify:

          Yes, geothermal energy is transportable. Firstly convert the geothermal heat differential into electricity by the most efficient means available. I'll let the market decide the most efficient means.

          Second, send it on down the wire by high voltage AC transmission to where the energy is needed. This is not a new idea, Iceland sends its geothermal energy by High Voltage AC lines to the capital city.

          If the energy is needed for use in cars and trucks then charge up the batteries in the cars and trucks.

          Also, the high maintenance costs associated with replacing imploding seals and joints for oil wells drilled under 8,960 feet of water has nothing to with the old oil wells drilled in my back yard. The land based oil wells should be economical access points to tap into geothermal energy.

          Oh, and thank you for pointing out that using a carbon fiber tube to transfer the heat up to the surface is brilliant.

          Not my idea though.

          It is already under development.

          Do a little research before you make fun of an idea that is Already being explored for commercial implementation.

          Who has a grasp of the facts?


  • Daniel Reich says:

    My question is how to convert the heat energy into usable energy. And can the materials needed for this be obtained from the same energy? I suspect fossil fuels will still be necessary. I'm talking nuts and bolts here. Also consider the environmental damage caused by mining these materials from the earth.

  • David Thomas says:

    In the end – ERORI Rules!!!

  • Davebee says:

    I personally offer up a slient prayer every night that fortunately for myself at age 70 I wont be around too much longer to see/feel the final Easter Island-on-steroids result of the end of the Industrial Revolution.

     I enjoyed the best of this planet back in the 50's, 60's and 70's.

    Thank you Lord.

    • RE says:

      Not sure the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s were the “Best of Planet” times.

      Personally, I would  have preferred to be on the first Cat Rigged Sailing Canoe that made it to the Big Island of Hawaii, circa 1000 AD or so.



  • UnhingedBecauseLucid says:

    The question that begs an answer is then;  w h y ?

    The wikipedia post on HDR geothermal energy seems to be detailing what seems to be an unbelievably low-hanging-fruit-begging-to-be-harvested bonanza. It may be. Why the fuck isn't there even one commercial plant 21 years after the Fenton Hill project was shut down. After all, it's not like there's a shortage of capital looking for a promising avenue right now

    "As a result of the LTFT, water loss was eliminated as a major concern in HDR operations.[19] Over the period of the LTFT, water consumption fell to just 7% of the quantity of water injected; and data indicated it would have continued to decline under steady-state circulation conditions. Dissolved solids and gases in the produced fluid rapidly reached equilibrium values at low concentrations (about one-tenth the salinity of sea water), and the fluid remained geochemically benign throughout the test period.[20] Routine operation of the automated surface plant showed that HDR energy systems could be run using the same economical staffing schedules that a number of unmanned commercial hydrothermal plants already employ.

    –What quantities of water are we talking about here ?

    –"Over the period of the LTFT, water consumption fell to just 7% of the quantity of water injected; and data indicated it would have continued to decline…"  —  (The attorney in the WVVH-TV video talks about a 1% loss)

    **Then why the fuck was the project shut down ?

    –Woud any kind of water do ? Even sea water ?

    –How much redundancy would a nation wide system require to compensate for imploding\corroded pipes, accidental fracturing of the reservoir and any such type of malfunction… ?

    –Finally, a surprisingly smart question is asked by the reporter in the WVVH video as to the whether there is risk associated with cooling the earth's core in the process should the whole planetary grid be powered this way. Though he's an environmental attorney, he ventured that the earth's core fission reaction would go on for hundreds of thousands of years and that we need'nt be concerned by that… 

    I wonder if we can be as certain of that as some are certain there is no man made global warming…

    • SomeoneInAsia says:

      Thanks, UBL, your post basically spelt out in full the reasons why I figured geothermal is in all probability just another false hope.

  • UnhingedBecauseLucid says:

    It would be interesting to hear Ugo's thought on that one. The Fenton Hill project particularly…

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