December 30, 2008
Harnessing The Power Of Volcanoes:
SMU Geothermal Team To Aid Pacific Islanders
DALLAS (SMU) -- Southern Methodist University scientists have launched
an ambitious project aimed at converting the volcanic heat beneath a
string of Pacific Ocean islands into a valuable source of renewable
energy for the power-starved Northern Marianas.
David Blackwell, SMU's W. B. Hamilton Professor of Earth Sciences, and
James Quick, SMU Associate Vice President of Research and Dean of
Graduate Studies, think the Marianas could produce enough geothermal
energy to supply the island chain and some of its neighbors with an
endless source of electricity. Success could mean economic salvation for
a region dependent on expensive, imported diesel fuel and an important
step forward in the global pursuit of clean, renewable energy.
"We are having a very critical problem with our power," said Benigno
Fitial, governor of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands,
adding that his government hopes to completely replace the use of diesel
fuel for electrical generation with renewable fuel sources. It costs
approximately $100 million a year to purchase the diesel fuel to support
the population core of only 60,000 people on Saipan, he said, and the
aging generators fed by that fuel are unreliable. "Right now we have
rolling blackouts because of the poor condition of the generators."
Preliminary testing on the islands of Saipan and Pagan (home to an
active volcano) revealed evidence of accessible geothermal reservoirs.
The SMU team believes Pagan holds potential as the site for a
high-temperature geothermal plant. Testing of existing water wells on
the more populated Saipan, a non-volcanic island, indicate that it might
support smaller, lower-temperature geothermal equipment.
The Mariana Islands form an arc in the Pacific Ocean about 1,550 miles
east of the Philippines. Fourteen of the islands, including Saipan, make
up the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) and to the
south is the U.S. territory of Guam. American troops invaded the
Marianas near the end of World War II, taking control of the archipelago
from the Japanese, and the Northern Marianas became a self-governing
American Commonwealth in 1978. The majority of the Commonwealth’s
population lives on Saipan, with a few families living on the volcanic
islands of Alamagan, Pagan and Agrigan.
Stretching along the eastern edge of the Philippine Plate, the island
chain grew from underwater volcanoes generated by the sinking of the
Pacific Plate beneath the Marianas Trench. While the southern islands,
including Saipan, are much older and not subject to eruption, the
northernmost islands are active volcanoes – including Pagan, where an
eruption in 1981 forced the evacuation of its small population.
Resettlement on Pagan is more likely if geothermal power can provide
Asian economic woes have stifled the Marianas tourism industry that was
growing in the 1990s, and global competition has all but eliminated the
once-flourishing garment assembly industry that employed both
Commonwealth citizens and large numbers of foreign workers attracted by
the jobs. The Commonwealth is finding it difficult to lure replacement
industry of any kind to the islands because they cannot guarantee a
reliable source of affordable power.
"Geothermal should be able to produce energy there at about 10 cents per
kilowatt-hour," Blackwell said. "It would have a huge effect. They pay
30 cents per kilowatt hour now."
Quick, who directed a volcano-monitoring program for the Marianas during
his 25 years with the U.S. Geological Survey, is acting as liaison to
the island government. He knows from personal observation what it would
mean for Marianas residents to cut their dependence on diesel fuel and,
in the process, make the Commonwealth more attractive to industry.
"The current economy of the Northern Marianas is severely depressed,"
Quick explained. "They have no realistic choice but to turn to
alternative energy, and they are moving aggressively: The governor has
an outstanding vision."
One of the world’s leading geothermal energy authorities, Blackwell will
manage the project, which includes identifying zones where geothermal
heat is closest to the surface and drilling test holes. SMU Geothermal
Lab Coordinator and project lead Maria Richards explained that the
university team is looking for a geothermal system on volcanic Pagan
that would allow for a high temperature (more than 300 degrees
Fahrenheit), steam-driven power plant like those found in the Western
United States, the Philippines and Iceland. Because the volcanics are
older on Saipan, the assessment there is focused on the potential for
binary power plants designed for lower temperature fluids. The binary
systems can be used individually for small-scale applications or
combined for public utilities to use.
THE MARIANAS TEAM
David Blackwell, Ph.D., is SMU's top expert on energy resource estimates
and geothermal exploration. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University and
teaches upper-level geology courses at SMU including Basin Analysis and
Theory of Heat Flow and Diffusion. Blackwell has spent extensive time in
the western United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, Egypt and Indonesia
studying heat flow measurements, and the SMU Geothermal Lab he directs
is a partner in the U.S. Department of Energy’s "GeoPowering the West "
project to promote awareness of geothermal energy resources in the
western United States, including Alaska and Hawaii.
James E, Quick, Ph.D., came to SMU in August 2007 after a 25-year
scientific career with the United States Geological Survey (USGS), where
he was Program Coordinator for the Volcano Hazards Program. He was
charged with monitoring the nation's 169 volcanoes to provide critical
early eruption warnings, and developed his strong working relationship
with Marianas officials when establishing the monitoring network in the
Commonwealth. Quick earned his Ph.D. in geology from the California
Institute of Technology, and his field research has taken him to more
than 35 countries around the world.
Leland (Roy) Mink, Ph.D., joined the SMU Department of Earth Sciences as
an adjunct faculty member after serving as the manager of Geothermal
Programs for the U.S. Department of Energy. He has more than 35 years of
experience in performing and managing energy programs, hydrological
evaluations and hazardous and radioactive waste projects.
Maria Richards is SMU Geothermal Laboratory Coordinator in the
Department of Earth Sciences. She was editor with Blackwell of the
Geothermal Map of North America published by the American Association of
Petroleum Geologists in 2004. Richards oversees state and federal
contracts, including a current project funded by the Texas State Energy
and Conservation Office for geothermal outreach and assessment in Texas.
Albert F. Waibel, owner of Columbia Geoscience in Hillsboro, Ore.,
provides consultation services ranging from regional reconnaissance to
site-specific test and production drilling for geothermal systems.