Untapped Energy


By Karl Grossman

A congressman and assemblyman who represent eastern Long Island— Tim Bishop and Fred Thiele—held a “bipartisan news conference” at a gas station in Mastic last week to press for action on energy. “We need practical solutions to our nation’s urgent need for affordable energy,” said Democrat Bishop of Southampton.

 “The only way to solve a problem of this magnitude is by working across party lines at all levels of government to find common-sense solutions,” said Republican Thiele of Sag Harbor.

They spoke of bills in Washington and Albany including measures responding to the price of gas, boosting energy efficiency, expanding the use of renewable fuels and improving public transportation. Both were highly critical of “Big Oil” for, as they put it in a statement, its “current publicity blitz…touting [a] commitment to alternative energy, even though Exxon-Mobil—the most profitable American company—spent a mere $10 million of its $40 billion in profits on renewable energy alternatives in 2007.”

In fact, a windfall in renewable energy is here—if only government and industry would encourage it.  But tragically for all of us the opposite has been true.

As the Worldwatch Institute and Center for American Progress in a report titled American Energy: The Renewable Path to Energy Security has stated: the U.S. government pours subsidies into oil, gas, coal and nuclear power and has failed to aggressively shift energy policy to encourage rapid development of renewable energy sources.

An example of an energy bonanza missed is called hot dry rock (HDR) geothermal energy. It’s a technology originated by the U.S. at Los Alamos National Laboratory. It turns out that below half the earth, one to six miles down, it’s extremely hot. When naturally flowing water hits those hot rocks and has a place to come up, there are geysers as in California or Iceland. But, the Los Alamos scientists found, water can be sent down an injection pipe to hit the hot dry rock below and rise up second production well. That super-heated water can turn a turbine and generate electricity or furnish heat.

They built a model HDR facility at Fenton Hill near the lab. I was there, and the system works great. Others in media were equally enthusiastic. As Fortune headlined an article in 1992: “Using Hot Rocks to Generate Energy. The biggest—and cleanest—power source on earth.”

I did a television program on HDR in which David Duchane, a respected, careful scientist at Los Alamos and its HDR program manager said: “Hot dry rock has an almost unlimited potential to supply all the energy needs of the United States and indeed all the world.”

So what happened?  A request for proposal—an RFP—was written up by Los Alamos inviting companies to take over the Fenton Hill facility and “produce and market energy” from it. It was to be an initial step in getting HDR technology spread through the U.S. But on its way to the Department of Energy in Washington, the RFP was cancelled. Why? Sources at the lab have told me because HDR was seen as too much of a threat to other kinds of power, the RFP was cancelled. The department then ordered the Fenton Hill facility decommissioned.

Some work now continues with HDR in the U.S. But much, much more is going on with the U.S.-developed technology in other nations including several in Europe and Australia and Japan. 

A Long Island long-time big booster of HDR is environmental attorney Russell Stein of Montauk, the former East Hampton Town attorney. “Hot dry rock is so good that sometimes it almost seems too good to be true—but it is true,” he says. “A well-run hot dry rock energy recovery system has virtually no environmental harm of any type. And therefore, it’s almost a free lunch.”

 “In analyzing how much heat is trapped in the first six miles below our feet, the numbers turn out to be stupendous,” Mr. Stein notes. “If only 10 percent of it is tapped, we could run the country for tens of thousands of years at today’s consumption levels.”

More next week on other safe, clean and practical renewable energy sources—energy we can live with—that now more than ever need to be utilized. The solutions are here—yet largely or totally untapped.