The State of
Geothermal Engineering


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Geothermal engineering has had its ups and downs but has never had its true breakthrough moment. The question: Is it coming? We talked with petroleum engineer Louis Capuano, Jr., to get some answers.

“You see a lot of potential opportunities but we don’t invest in renewable like we should,” says Capuano, president of Capuano Engineering Company, Santa Rosa, CA. “Geothermal usually benefits from oil and gas research but we haven’t seen that lately. I do have one interested drilling engineer who is only six or seven years out of school, but he’s my son. We need to get young engineers involved.”

But how to do it? “With challenges,” he says. “We need to establish enhanced geothermal systems. It’s a very slow progress and it’s about being ready to take a chance and commit to the field. If we drill wells and can’t find the best production then can we still salvage something. We may be able to fracture in the right direction.” At present, the U.S. has an installed geothermal capacity of 3,386 megawatts and total planned capacity of 2,511-2,606 additional megawatts, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Geothermal power plants use superheated fluids from the earth’s geothermal resources to generate electricity.

Overseas in Europe, it’s a better story and one Capuano says we need to learn from. “You’re looking at low temperatures and deep wells, trying to extract heat from the ground for commercial purposes,” he says. “In Europe, they have high electricity rates and are using the resource for this need. Indonesia is another example. They have many brownouts and lack outside help. They need great domestic load power.”

Another major roadblock is a lack of patience. “Modeling of geothermal is more difficult than oil and gas,” he says. “Looking for liquid inside fractures is hit and miss. There are a lot of benefits but maybe only one out of four wells will be successful.” Capuano says this lack of instant gratification particularly hurts the industry during bad financial times. “Private insurance doesn’t take as much risk in oil,” he says. “The credit crunch came a few years ago and that cut everyone back. Unlike oil and gas, which can be sold in the same year (of drilling), geothermal takes time. You need a well, resources, environmental documentation, and you put it in operation. The return could take five to 10 years. Investors don’t like to wait.”

Hope for Fair Funding

Still, Capuano remains hopeful. “The government can play its role in geothermal permits if it wants to,” he says. “The Department of Interior has had a hard time, along with the Department of Energy [but] the budgets are so small. Still, look at California with 20% renewables on everything, while I see geothermal producing 60% of the renewable energy. Solar doesn’t work if the sun doesn’t shine while geothermal is available 24-7 and doesn’t require a backup.”

Capuano just hopes his pleas don’t fall on deaf ears, watching what was once an exciting potential energy option stay very much in a holding pattern. “We don’t want preferential treatment in funding,” he says. “Just fair treatment by looking at the opportunity.”

Eric Butterman is an independent writer.

Solar doesn’t work if the sun doesn’t shine while geothermal is available 24-7 and doesn’t require a backup.

Louis Capuano, Jr., president, Capuano Engineering Consultants

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August 2013

by Eric Butterman, ASME.org