The company calls itself AltaRock, which translates roughly from the Nordish as “getting high on rocks.” With a $6 million grant from the U.S. Energy Department and $30 million in venture capital (translation: “lottery ticket”), the firm set out to show the world how to turn true geothermal energy — that is, the heat in deep rock — into a major source of alternative, renewable energy. Last Friday, it showed the world how to abandon a project and make itself virtually invisible.
If you have heard me sing this song before, please join me in the chorus: “Renewable is not sustainable if it’s industrial.”
The company set up a huge drilling rig a hundred miles north of San Francisco and began to execute its plan to drill several miles into the earth to where the rock is hot enough to boil water. There it planned to fracture (translation: blow the crap out of) the bedrock to get room to circulate industrial quantities of water to produce industrial amounts of steam. It would be, said the guys who were high on rock, a limitless supply of pollution-free energy.
Couple of problems. First they encountered drilling difficulties, snapping bit after bit, and this occurred not miles into the earth, but, um, yards, in the first formation of moderately hard rock they came to. Secondly, other companies that had actually got their drills far enough into the earth to start fracturing (blowing the crap out of) the bedrock discovered that when you fracture rock that is under strain from tectonic movement, you get earthquakes. Lots of them.
One of the leading such projects, in Basel, Switzerland, was shut down permanently by the government after earthquakes associated with its fracturing operations fractured hundreds of Basel buildings to the tune of $9 million in damages. The project director, a former oilman (how delicious is that), faces criminal charges. In Anderson Springs, California, people have been watching their crockery dance in temblors caused by other, less ambitious projects than AltaRock’s. The Swiss boarded up their project last Thursday; the high rocks people decamped from California on Friday. [Geothermal Project in California Is Shut Down -- The New York Times]
This is where industrial solar power, industrial wind power — indeed, industrial everything — is headed. The idea of tapping endlessly renewable sources of energy is fine, but until we learn that the only sustainable way to do that is in small, even tiny increments, we’re going to be driving ever faster toward the same cliff. (For more detail on this see my book Brace for Impact: Surviving the Crash of the Industrial Age by Sustainable Living.)
One can use a form of geothermal energy — the steady-state temperature of around 50 degrees that you find just a few feet down in temperate soils — to provide water for a heat exchanger that can cool a house in summer, heat it in winter with great efficiency and low cost. There are parts of the world, i.e. Yellowstone, where water-boiling heat is readily accessible. Fine, use what’s available to supply your house or your building, and leave the rest.
But spend a gazillion dollars to bring in industrial machinery to blow the crap out of things and make a quadrillion dollars trucking stuff throughout the solar system, and you are part of the problem. You would be better off getting high on weed.
Remember: Renewable is not sustainable if it’s industrial.