Geothermal Power Could Change Energy and Emissions Landscape in West Virginia

If there’s one US state that has come to symbolize dependence on dirty energy, and the emissions and other side effects of fossil fuels, that state would probably be West Virginia. Located in the heart of Appalachia, West Virginia is ground zero in the debate over mountaintop removal coal mining—a practice that involves literally blasting away mountaintops to get at buried coal seams. Almost all West Virginia’s electricity comes from coal-fired power plants, of which there are more than forty in the state. Few other regions can claim such a close and destructive relationship to the coal industry as this.

It’s therefore both ironic and encouraging that a report funded by Google has revealed West Virginia to be surprisingly rich in an untapped renewable resource: geothermal power. According to the report, West Virginia may have more geothermal potential than any other state in the eastern US. If utilized to their full extent, the state’s geothermal energy resources could supply more electricity than West Virginia’s current yearly energy demand, completely displacing coal energy and emissions.

Researchers from Southern Methodist University have discovered geothermal hotspots at depths of three to eight kilometers belowground, over an area in West Virginia of more than 18,700 square kilometers. Though the warm patches are buried deeper than in parts of the world more famous for their geothermal resources, with today’s technology they could theoretically generate 18,890 megawatts of power. Today West Virginia’s total power capacity is 16,350 megawatts.

Even if just a fraction of its geothermal resources prove feasible for development, West Virginia has the potential to re-power a significant part of its economy with renewable energy. Yet what this new discovery actually means for the future of energy and emissions in the state is much less clear. Renewable resources are only useful when the political will to utilize them exists, and the power of coal in West Virginian politics is legendary. Other renewable energy projects in West Virginia have already been shot down by the coal lobby. For years environmentalists have argued in favor of installing wind turbines on the state’s blustery mountaintops, rather than blasting them away to get at difficult-to-reach coal reserves.

Companies like Massey Energy have so far ignored these and other pleas for a new approach to energy and emissions in the state, and have forged ahead with plans to expand mountaintop removal coal mines. Yet in some ways geothermal energy is an even more attractive resource than wind. For one thing it is non-intermittent; a geothermal plant can keep running day and night, regardless of cloudy days or wind speeds.

Perhaps the revelation that West Virginia has the most geothermal potential of any state in Appalachia will finally prompt decision makers to close the books on a centuries-long relationship with the coal industry. For this coal-dependent region to become a leader in renewable energy would be a fitting indicator of changes in the tides of US energy and emissions policy.

Photo credit: Alternative Energy Resources

Nick Engelfried is a freelance writer on climate and energy issues, and works with campuses and communities in the Pacific Northwest to reduce the causes of climate change