Alaska Opts for Underground Energy

Alaskan state officials have recently announced their intentions to begin funding the exploration and surveying of Alaska’s largest volcanoes in hopes of utilizing these as a source of geothermal energy which they say could provide enough energy to power thousands of households. According to some estimates these volcanoes and hot springs could supply up to 25% of the state’s energy needs. Could this be the beginning of an alternative energy revolution?

Mount Spurr, Alaska (Credit: United States Geological Survey)  
Mount Spurr, Alaska
(Credit: United States Geological Survey)

Officials are already set to begin auctioning off exploration rights – the first volcano to be tapped for geothermal power is Mount Spurr, a 3.4-km tall snowcapped stratovolcano in the Aleutian Volcanic Arc of Alaska. Another volcano considered for exploration is the Augustine stratovolcano, which resides near Anchorage and reaches 1.3 km in height. One of two vents of Mount Spurr, called Crater Peak, has erupted twice in the past century, the latest eruption occurring as recently as 1992 and leading to falls of volcanic ash stretching as far as the Municipality of Anchorage, 130 km to the east. In 2004 the Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO) issued an eruption warning concerning Mt. Spurr due to an increased number of earthquakes detected beneath its surface which could indicate activity preceding an eruption. Currently AVO rates Mt. Spurr as Level of Concern Code Green, which indicates that the volcano is in its normal, non-eruptive state. However, many experts have expressed safety concerns in regards to working with such a volatile geothermal source, however great the potential gain may be.   

As the power companies prepare to turn the immense heat that simmers beneath the volcanoes’ surfaces and hot springs in Alaska into electric power, about a dozen other states with highly potential geothermal lands are looking into possible utilization of these resources on their own territory. Experts state that if fully exploited nationwide, geothermal resources could supply about a quarter of the entire US population power needs. “High prices and climate change are definitely creating a renaissance in geothermal interest, particularly on a state and local level” – says Karl Gawell, executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association, adding that the projects currently underway are merely the “tip of the iceberg.” “If we really want to go all out for it, we could easily achieve a substantial amount; 20, 25 per cent of US energy needs within a few decades. We’re limited more by public policy than the resource – the resource is enormous.” According to recent findings, there are about 200 million acres of land in the US with geothermal potential but Gawell says he believes 80 percent of such land is yet “unsuspected”, since it doesn’t bear the typical features scientists look for when exploring an area for geothermal activity.       

Krafla Geothermal power station in  northeast Iceland (Credit: Mike Schiraldi)  
Krafla Geothermal power station
in northeast Iceland (Credit: Mike Schiraldi)

When it comes to harnessing geothermal energy, scientists face a number of considerable challenges. One geologic drawback is the fact that the heat sources in the mentioned Alaskan volcanoes lie deep inside thick layers of earth, which makes them especially difficult to tap. Novel designs are necessary for such missions in order to even get the exploratory system started on a grand scale. With all the difficulties geothermal energy generation entails, there is a bright star on the horizon – a unique resort at Chena Hot Springs in Alaska which is entirely powered by hot springs.

TFOT has previously published an extensive overview of a unique open-source engineering project which aims to create a new power plant design that will use a combination of solar and geothermal energy for use in more distant locations without polluting the environment. We have also covered a number of innovative alternative energy solutions, among them the recently unveiled highly bendable “dye-sensitized” solar cells, which were developed at the A*STAR Institute of Microelectronics in Singapore. As well covered is a novel technology developed by MIT scientists, who have succeeded in improving the power output of a certain type of fuel cell by more than 50 percent.