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 electricity there.

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.


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.