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Why Silicon Valley Won't Be the Next Detroit

We don’t hear “death of Detroit” stories as often now as we did a year ago.
When GM and Chrysler plunged into bankruptcy and the entire U.S. industry laid off tens of thousands of workers in one year, the effects on an already battered Detroit region were dire. And they led to a rash of stories that Detroit was done with. Many predicted that the new, green auto industry of the future would be built around the electronics expertise of Silicon Valley.
A June piece in the San Jose Mercury News, "Silicon Valley becoming a hub of electric vehicles," argued that following Tesla Motors' IPO, the area's early adopters and its expertise in information technology made it a logical place for new electric-car companies.
NPR boldly pronounced, "The new automobile of the 21st century is likely to benefit from the culture of Silicon Valley, where people are used to taking a chip, a cell or an idea and working on it until it becomes something big."
We’ve thought about it for a year, and discussed it with many people. And we don’t believe it. Silicon Valley is the wrong place to build an auto industry, for three main reasons.
First, the entire Valley is built around quick-turn invention and monetization. Consider famously successful startups like eBay, Google, and Facebook. None required more than a good idea, a few desks, some computers, and smart software coders.
That’s the antithesis of a car company. These days, it takes $1 billion or more to design, engineer, test, certify, and launch a brand-new vehicle. And that takes roughly five years.
We’ve never felt that venture capitalists and startup automakers were a good match. A new automaker or even a new brand can take more than a decade to break even (despite CEO Elon Musk’s claim that Tesla Motors was profitable for a single month last year).
Ten years on, most venture-funded firms have long since either been killed off or sold for parts, or broken even and become self-sustaining and profitable enterprises.
Second, while Silicon Valley is replete with electrical and electronics engineers, the bulk of them are skilled at microelectronics. But integrated circuits for consumer electronics are very different from the large-scale electric machinery—high-voltage battery packs, electric motors of 100 kilowatts or more, and vehicle-grade power electronics—that electric vehicles require.
Silicon Valley may have proficient coders oozing out of every condo complex, but it lacks—and isn’t likely to develop—large numbers of engineers with the right mix of automotive mechatronics and high-voltage systems skills.
Tesla Motors admitted as much on its recent plant tour. Executives confirmed that the company recruits literally all over the world for engineers with the right mix of experience, including from England’s ample supply of Formula 1 race-car engineers.
Finally, California is an expensive and highly regulated place for companies to locate, especially if they manufacture physical goods. And in volume automaking, it's all about keeping costs below revenues.
The state has rules, requirements, and laws that simply aren’t found elsewhere—especially in the largely Southern, non-union states that lavishly subsidized green-field sites to attract plants built by BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Toyota, and Volkswagen.
Those rules impose both a time and a cost burden. But it gets worse. After half a century of explosive growth propelled by the success of Silicon Valley startups, the San Francisco Bay Area is now very densely populated.
That means factories are no longer the highest and best use for large tracts of land. Office parks or dense residential development simply yield a better return. Sans Tesla, the likely fate of the Fremont plant may have been to be torn down for office parks and condos.
Then there’s the cost of living. The average price of a single-family house in Palo Alto, Tesla’s headquarters town, is over one million dollars—hardly par for the industry globally.
When even Stanford University has to build hundreds of housing units to attract everyone from young professors to assistant athletic coaches, startups face huge challenges in luring talented workers from other areas.
Ah, but isn’t Tesla Motors the prototype for this fabled new auto industry in the Valley? Funded by Silicon Valley venture capital, the company is now headquartered in the foothills just above Stanford University, in an old Hewlett-Packard building no less.
Nonetheless, Tesla still has to play by the same rules as the rest of the auto industry. If it truly intends to grow into an independent global automaker—a goal most analysts think is close to impossible—it faces the same high costs.
The company developed its groundbreaking Roadster smartly, by adapting and reusing large portions of an existing car—the Lotus Elise sports car—and outsourcing much of that work to Lotus itself, along with the manufacturing (in the U.K.).
Tesla confined itself to designing, testing, and assembling the Roadster’s battery pack and some other electronic components. They’ve recently brought more of that work in-house in their new facility.
But total Roadster production over three or four model years will number in the low thousands, a level at which outsourcing makes economic sense.
According to auto manufacturing guru James Harbour, outsourcing only
makes sense to volumes of 15,000 to 25,000 cars per year. After that, it’s simply cheaper to set up your own factory.
That’s why Tesla acquired a factory in Fremont, California, from Toyota earlier this year. The Japanese company had inherited the plant after GM pulled out of the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. partnership that had jointly operated the plant, most recently building Toyota Corollas and Pontiac Vibes. It was also the last surviving auto manufacturing plant in the state.
Tesla says it will build and sell 50,000 Model S luxury sports sedans a year, as well as building battery packs and adapting vehicles for other makers. Its powertrain is currently used in the Smart Electric Drive and the Mercedes-Benz A-Class E-Cell, and Toyota is paying it $60 million to provide powertrains for an electric version of its RAV4 crossover.

If Tesla survives as a company, its headquarters and even manufacturing may stay put. Most analysts feel a more likely scenario is that the brand is acquired by another carmaker, in which case, manufacturing will likely migrate elsewhere.
Maybe not right away, but almost certainly when Tesla wants to build a $15,000 or $20,000 electric car that will sell in the hundreds of thousands of units. Around 2020, say?
Tesla’s headquarters might remain in the Valley. That’s a major part of its brand image, and most automakers have outposts there to keep current on innovations in microelectronics, telematics, and social media. But we’d be shocked if the Fremont factory is still building cars 20 years hence.
It’s worth comparing Tesla to Fisker Automotive, another venture-funded startup. Fisker says it will build up to 15,000 of its first car, the 2011 Karma plug-in hybrid sports sedan. That’s the right number for outsourcing; indeed, the Karma will be assembled in Finland by Valmet.
For its planned second car, Fisker too is taking over a former GM plant. But this one is in Delaware, a far cheaper location. More importantly, Tesla and Fisker are still tiny startups.
So is Coda, which plans to open a vehicle assembly plant for what it says will be up to 14,000 electric cars a year in Benicia, on the northeast corner of San Francisco Bay.
General Motors and Ford are now hiring hundreds of engineers to work on hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and electric vehicles, like the 2011 Chevrolet Volt and the 2012 Ford Focus Electric.
And they’re not doing it in Silicon Valley. They’re doing it in Michigan, just where they always have: the GM Technical Center in Warren, and the Ford headquarters complex in Dearborn.
Sure, their designers and engineers visit Silicon Valley to do deals with startups in areas like apps that will connect their cars to the world of always-on information. But then they take the apps back home to where cars are built.
In other words, we suspect that the new, clean, green auto industry in the U.S. will be pretty much where the old, dirty, gas-guzzling one was.
That would be … Detroit.
Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
This article, written by John Voelcker, originally appeared on, a content partner of IEEE Spectrum.

Make Your Chevy Volt Drive Like a Tesla

Pretty much anyone who's driven one loves the performance of the Tesla Roadster, the first modern electric car with a lithium-ion battery pack.

The 2011 Chevrolet Volt is a much less radical electric car than the Roadster in certain ways, and one of them is its accelerator response.

GM's engineers have tuned the control software to mimic the behavior of a standard gasoline-engine car fitted with an automatic transmission. There's the standard idle creep at a stoplight, and if you lift off the accelerator, the car coasts freely, with little regenerative braking.

That's not how the Tesla works. Its regenerative braking kicks in as soon as you lift off the accelerator, and taking your foot off completely slows the car almost as rapidly as braking.

While different to a combustion-engined car, it's easy to get used to--on our road test, it took less than five minutes--and it lets drivers operate the Tesla Roadster essentially with a single pedal.

Its friction brakes are required only below 10 miles per hour, to bring the car to a full stop at traffic lights and stop signs as regenerative braking dies away with speed.

But Chevrolet's engineers have provided a similar ability in its Voltec powertrain: It's the "Low" setting on the "transmission selector". And when it's paired with the "Sport" power mode, which gives more aggressive accelerator response, it's the best way to turn your Volt into a mini-Tesla.

The Volt's 0-to-60-mph acceleration, of course, isn't anywhere near a standard Tesla's: We observed about 9 seconds, compared to the Roadster's stunning 3.9 seconds, a speed that humbles some supercars costing twice the Roadster's $109,000.

But if you get a chance to test-drive a 2011 Chevrolet Volt, we recommend that you try it first in the standard "Drive" mode. Then, after 10 minutes or so, switch over to the mix of "Low" and "Power," and see which you like better.

Our preference? We like aggressive regenerative braking, and on our 2011 Volt test drives last week, we preferred to use what we came to call the "Tesla combination" of settings.

That said, we think Tesla still has the best accelerator software going. We noticed a slight abruptness on liftoff in the Volt, as its regeneration kicked in rather suddenly.

It wasn't a lurch--nowhere near the experience of being slammed forward into the seatbelt that the unpleasant Mini E provided--but it could use a bit more work on the blending.

Perhaps that'll come in the Volt, Revision 1.1?

This story, written by John Voelcker, was originally published on All Cars Electric, an editorial partner of IEEE Spectrum.

UK Rejects Tidal Barrage, but Nimbler Tech May Endure

The UK government has shelved schemes to build a tidal barrage across the Severn estuary, West of London, that could have supplied 5% of the UK's power needs. What reports are missing is the endurance of more nimble tidal turbines and other marine power generators -- distributed energy devices that the UK is helping to nurture.

Barrages are essentially hydro dams that capture each high tide and generate electricity from their outflow.The first large barrage and largest currently operating crosses the estuary of the Rance River on France's Atlantic coast, generating a peak of 240 megawatts -- the scale of a large wind farm. Five competing proposals for a Severn barrage were to generate up to 40 times that much from the region's 14-meter tides.

But the government's Severn Tidal Power study published today found that the up-to-£34-billion cost would scare off investors. The most cost-effective scheme, it found, would cost nearly twice as much as offshore wind power per megawatt-hour of energy produced. “There is no strategic case at this time for public funding of a scheme to generate energy in the Severn estuary. Other low carbon options represent a better deal for taxpayers and consumers," says Chris Huhne, the UK's secretary of state for energy. 

Barrages also -- for all their potential to generate carbon-free power -- stomp a large environmental footprint onto marine ecosystems. A barrage to yield power from the immense tides in Nova Scotia's Bay of Fundy, for example, would alter the tides as far south as Boston. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds' Martin Harper, quoted in BusinessWeek, said today that the Severn project threatened to  "destroy huge areas of estuary marsh and mudflats used by 69,000 birds each winter."

What BusinessWeek buried and others ignored (as in the BBC's story, Is this the end for UK tidal power?) is the investment that the UK is already making in more environmentally-benign tidal and wave power devices that generate electricity in open water. Site leases for several big wave and tidal power projects around Scotland's Orkney Islands were awarded this spring, concluding a two-year bidding process that elicited strong interest from major utilities and energy entrepreneurs.

As I reported in March for MIT's Technology Review magazine, those projects could collectively generate up to 1.2 gigawatts of renewable power. Yes, that's smaller than Severn proposals. But if realized it will represent an immense scaleup for an industry that so far has installed only a handful of small devices, starting it down the same cost-reduction curve that made wind power the fastest-growing power source.

Some Cautionary Notes on Atlantic Wind Connection

It's a rare occasion when the New York Times leads its daily newspaper with a report on a proposed electric power project. But the Atlantic Wind Connection--a proposed offshore grid to link up offshore wind with onshore grids in Virginia, Delaware, and New Jersey--got that treatment this week. And my fellow Spectrum blogger Dave Levitan rightly picked up on the story immediately and reported it here.

Google is well known for its visionary long-term investment strategy and the dominant search company  has bet especially heavily on green technologies, as Spectrum's Sandra Upson reported several years ago--no doubt in part because of sensitivities arising from its power-hogging server farms. The large investment Google is prepared to make in the so-called Atlantic Wind Connection naturally gives the project a credibility it might otherwise lack.

Nevertheless, some sober-minded words of caution are in order:

--First, and most obviously, this is a long-term project; even if all goes as hoped, it will not begin to yield its full rewards for a decade

--Second, to move at all, it has to get through numerous regulatory hoops involving three states and at least several Federal agencies

--Third, politics will come into play too, of course. Already there's grumbling in Virginia that if the transmission backbone is used initially to transport  the state's relatively inexpensive electricity up to New Jersey, where it's more costly,  local rates will rise. (A similar concern on the part of people in Connecticut prevented the cross-sound cable to Long Island  from being used for years; it was finally activated during the great Northeast-Midwest blackout, when the Federal government invoked emergency powers.)

If this kind of argument about who's gaining and who's losing gets heated enough, skeptics may even start asking whether the right offshore wind resource is being exploited. According to a recent survey, Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey have a combined offshore potential of about 50 GW. But Michigan, to take just one of the Great Lakes states and provinces, has an offshore potential nearly double that.

This skeptic would be willing to bet that if offshore wind ever gets really really big in the United States, it may be in the old industrial heartland on the Great Lakes, not off the two ocean coasts.

Cancellation of Maryland Plant Delivers Double Whammy

Constellation Energy's decision this last week to not build a nuclear reactor after all in Maryland was a big shock to its partner EDF, which had been banking on the alliance to serve as its wedge into the U.S. reactor market, and to the market itself.

Constellation's reason for pulling out was the high fee the Energy Department proposed to charge for extending a Federal loan guarantee to cover the project, estimated at $10 billion. DOE and nuclear regulators had come under fire from influential nuclear critics like former NRC commissioner Peter Bradford for extending loan guarantees on excessively soft terms, at growing risk to U.S. taxpayers.

There's no gainsaying that nuclear construction projects are looking riskier all the time, especially in the United States, where many factors have conspired to spoil dreams of a big nuclear renaissance: declining energy demand since the onset of the global economic crisis (down 4 percent since 2007 in the States); plummeting natural gas prices (down almost half from what they were a few years ago); collapsing prospects for enactment of a U.S. climate bill (which would have raised the costs of fossil-fuel-generated electricity); and soaring reactor construction costs (with EDF's current reactor 40 or 50 percent more expensive than originally billed).

An analysis in the Financial Times deems Constellation's decision "strategically devastating" for EDF--but also potentially helpful in the long run, because France's national utility already was widely believed to have been putting too much money on its losing U.S. bet.

POSTSCRIPT, Oct. 14: It's being reported today that EDF, attempting to keep Calvert Cliffs alive, is offering to either buy out Constellation's stake in the project or assume all project development costs until construction begins. It wants Constellation to drop a contractual option that could force EDF to buy up to $2 billion in conventional generation assets from the U.S. energy company.

Shalegas Is Bigger Business All the Time

Traditionally, extracting shalegas by means of hydraulic fracturing has been dominated by relatively small specialized companies, which keep a low profile. But increasingly big-name players are getting into the business, especially in the United States, as long-term prospects continue to improve. This week China's Cnooc announced it would invest $1-2 billion and take a one-third stake in a Texas project being developed by Chesapeake Energy, the market leader. Almost simultaneously, Norway's Statoil and Canada's Talisman Energy said they would invest $1.3 billion in the same Eagle Ford formation.

Cnooc once tried to obtain the U.S. oil company Unocal but had to drop the bid when it ran into sharp political opposition in the United States. In the deal it's now announced with Chesapeake, it will spend $1.08 billion to buy one third of the U.S. company's Eagle Ford acreage in Texas and may spend up to another $1.08 billion to cover up to three quarters of Chesapeake's drilling and well completion costs. According to a Financial Times report and analysis, Cnooc is eager to acquire technical experience, with an eye on China's shalegas reserves.

Pat Wood, a former Texas energy regulator who chaired the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission during George W. Bush's presidency, has declared that the U.S. gas market is resembling its state in the 1990s, when prices stayed low by historic standards with minor seasonal variation. "Even if half the supply is unavailable for economic or environmental reasons, we could see sub-$6 gas for the rest of the decade," he has said. So promising is the situation, indeed, there's beginning to be serious talk of the United States challenging Russian and Middle Eastern producers in the global LNG export market.

Transmission Backbone: Offshore Cable to Set Stage for Wind

Transmission has always been the elephant in the room when it comes to renewable energy (with apologies to energy storage; let's call that the mildly smaller hippopotamus in the room). Because wind and sun tend to pick and choose their spots to blow strongest, shine brightest and longest, there is usually the need for additional infrastructure capable of bringing all that carbon-free electricity to the load centers.

Offshore wind is no different, and is even more complicated in terms of transmission because it's, you know, off shore. With the offshore wind industry poised to take off -- or at least finally get one foot off the ground -- there is now a proposed project that would theoretically ease the transmission issues of wind farms up and down the Atlantic coast.

A project to be known as the Atlantic Wind Connection will create a huge "transmission backbone," with undersea cables sited miles off the coast aimed at connecting new wind farms to the power grid without the need for piecemeal infrastructure. The project is run by Trans-Elect, with financial backing for its estimated $5 billion price tag from Google and others.

The Atlantic Wind Connection will run for 350 miles along the coasts of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey. A direct-current series of cables, it will be the first undersea cable in the US to actually pick up generated power along the way. And at 15 to 20 miles off the coast, if wind turbines are built around the backbone they will be barely visible from shore.

It has been a banner couple of weeks for the nascent (still) offshore wind industry. A recent National Renewable Energy Laboratory report indicated the massive potential of the wind flying past US shores -- four times that of all the existing electricity generation in the country -- and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar finally signed a 28-year lease allowing the 130 Cape Wind turbines to be built.

And at the signing of that lease, last week, Salazar hinted at this week's transmission announcement.

"By identifying high priority areas offshore for potential wind projects, we can explore the development of a transmission backbone in the Atlantic Ocean to serve those areas," he said. "Rather than develop transmission infrastructure plans on a piecemeal basis, we should – in close coordination with the private sector, states, and tribes – lay out a smart transmission system, up front."

(Image via Kim Hansen/Wikimedia Commons)

Smart Grid Obstacle

We all tend to think of the Dutch as pretty relaxed and forward-thinking people. But last year they rebelled against a proposed compulsory rollout of smart meters, on grounds that the equipment could reveal too much personal detail to utility company employees and expose citizens to wrong-doing.

Those kinds of concerns may seem exaggerated but in fact they're serious and will have to be squarely addressed, speaker after speaker emphasized at a smart grid technical conference, sponsored by the IEEE Communications society and held at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), in Gaithersburg, Md. A conference track featured presentations on "false data injection," malicious data attacks, statistical methods of attack detection (and concealment), and "data anonymization."

In the United States, because of 9/11, when we think of smart grid vulnerabilities, we probably think first of terrorist cyber attacks. But there are other things to worry about too. False data injection, for example, is a tactic not only Al Qaeda could employ but also crooked traders, seeking to create fake market conditions that affect price. Instead of creating congestion in order to make money relieving it, as Enron traders boasted they did, a malicious data injector could just create the appearance of congestion and reap millions.

One clear message from the very cosmopolitan and sophisticated SmartGridComm conference: Every country has its own experiences and obsessions, and all that has to be taken into account if the smart grid is to live up to its billing.

According to press reports, Dutch voters worried that meters relaying information as often as every 15 minutes could tip utility workers off to when houses were empty or expensive new appliances had been bought. Seem paranoid? Well, it just so happens that this summer my family traded houses with a Dutch family living in an affluent suburb of Haarlem, near Amsterdam. Every door to the outside--four in all--and every ground-floor window had three locks that had to be opened with different keys. Evidently the Dutch living in Haarlem--however relaxed and forward looking they may be--don't like to have their belongings stolen. (They seem to worry about that more, in fact, than the yuppies moving these days into New York's Harlem.)

In Germany, because of sensitivities associated with Nazism, the Federal government has repeatedly found it impossible to conduct national censuses. Citizens worry that if the government gets too much personal information, once again some day Gestapo agents may be pounding on the door in the middle of the night. Seem paranoid to you? It doesn't actually matter what you think. What matters is what Germans think--and Siemens, a major player in smart grid technology and a prominent contributor of experts in Gaithersburg, is no doubt acutely aware of that.

In England, the Department of Energy and Climate Change intends to see all households equipped with smart meters by 2020, at a cost of about $13 billion. The anticipated average saving to each household will come to $45/year.

So let's be clear: That's significant--and very big in aggregate--but not huge on a per-person basis. If citizens are to be persuaded the smart grid is a good thing and are to be talked into helping make it work to best advantage, they will have to be convinced of its public benefits and assured its downside can be managed. As a source told the Times of London: "The backlash against smart meters could be aggressive if the message that they will reduce energy consumption and help lower carbon emissions is not made clear. The government also has to address these privacy and security issues. Many people do not like the idea of utility companies having a permanent window on their private lives."

There are ways of engineering around privacy and security concerns, as another post in the space recently detailed, but as it also said, engineering alone will not be able to do the whole job.

NRDC's Tom Cochran Assesses Breeder Prospects

Tom Cochran, a PhD particle physicist and lifelong staff member of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C., wrote a book about breeder reactors in 1974 that had considerable influence. At the time, the U.S. breeder program was the biggest single R&D item in the Federal budget; Cochran’s book, commissioned by Resources for the Future, took a highly critical look at estimated costs and projected engineering performance for fast reactors. In April 1977, newly elected president Jimmy Carter suspended plans to build a demonstration breeder at Clinch River, Tennessee, and along with it plans to introduce commercial reprocessing of spent nuclear fuels.

Despite setbacks in virtually all other breeder development programs, a recent MIT report continues to envision a future in which breeders might play a big part. Cochran comments as follows:

MIT basically got it right when projecting future uranium costs, though they didn't also take into account that enrichment costs will go down. The bottom line is that nuclear fuel costs will not move significantly in the next 100 years from where they are today.

Their conclusion, being from a university heavily engaged in research, is that this leaves lots of time to do all kinds of research on all kinds of things. My conclusion is that we don't need to do more research on alternative fuel cycles at this time. What we need to focus on is bringing down the capital costs of standard light water reactors. Historically, however, the government has boxed itself in by funding primarily research on the back end of the fuel cycle--spent fuel processing and nuclear waste disposal--and technologies relying on alternative fuel cycles, including the fast reactor.

Why has the industry had so little success in the thirty years since Three Mile Island in getting reactor costs down?

Nuclear energy is risky and complicated, and so you have to spend a great deal of money to make it safe and efficient. So, contrary to the industry’s expectations that economies of scale would produce savings, costs have gone up, at least in the United States. The cost trend of nuclear plants built in South Korea appears to be an exception at least in recent years.

You wrote the book on the liquid-meter fast breeder reactor. Can’t one make a case that the technology has proved to be a failure, given that every country that’s seriously pursued it has run into serious problems?

Yes, breeder development efforts were the priority energy research programs in the United States, France and Japan. Yet the programs failed in these countries, as well as in the United Kingdom, Germany, and--arguably--Russia, because they never closed the fuel cycle.

You mean Russia never extracted plutonium from breeders to serve as fresh breeder fuel, to realize the dream of “infinite” nuclear fuel supplies?

Correct. Rather than close the fuel cycle, Russia just fueled its breeders with highly enriched uranium. But that makes no sense. Basically, if you’re going to use uranium as fuel, you should build a thermal reactor [like an LWR], because the fission cross section is highest when the neutrons are moving slowly—at thermal energies. If you’re going to burn plutonium then you want a fast reactor because the plutonium fission cross section is higher when the neutrons are moving fastest. By the way, let’s not forget the nuclear navies of  the United States and the Soviet Union. Admiral Rickover built a prototype breeder for his second nuclear submarine, but decided it wasn’t a good idea even before sea trials began. In 1956 or ‘57 he concluded breeders were expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time consuming to repair. That pretty well sums up the subsequent history of liquid metal fast reactor development efforts. The Soviet effort to deploy lead-bismuth cooled fast reactors in alfa-class submarines was also short-lived.

Given that sorry history, is there any real basis for projecting breeder costs 25, 50 or 100 years from now?

I don’t think so. When people engage in  R&D, and it becomes clear that the direction they’re taking isn't working and that it’s time to strike a new course, they often are the last ones to get the message. They always think, “If we just do a little more research, the next  time it will work.”

Deep Under the West Virginia Coal, Geothermal Resource Beckons

West Virginia isn't exactly known as the greenest state in the country, acting as ground zero for the fight over coal and mountaintop removal mining. A recent study shows, though, that the state sits atop a surprisingly bountiful renewable energy resource: heat.

Researchers at Southern Methodist University's Geothermal Laboratory found a potential geothermal energy resource in West Virginia of 18,890 megawatts, up substantially from previous estimates (that number assumes a two percent thermal recovery rate). There is enough heat underground to scale up to commercial-level plants, most likely. In fact, the researchers wrote that "The temperatures are high enough to make this the most attractive area for geothermal energy development in the eastern 1/3 of the country."

Concentrated mainly in the eastern part of West Virginia, the hot spots rise to more than 300 degrees Fahrenheit at depths of 15,000 feet. The discovery that commercial-scale geothermal plants could work in this area of the country comes as some surprise, as the technology more often depends on more tectonically active regions - like, say, Iceland (pictured) - to generate the necessary heat.

The US does already lead the way internationally in geothermal installations, with more than 3,000 MW [PDF] installed capacity. The vast bulk of that, though, is located in California and Nevada, with only a couple of plants anywhere near the eastern seaboard. If West Virginia's newfound resource proves commercially viable, it could bring yet another renewable technology to the table.

The study's authors agree on its potential importance: "The presence of a large, baseload, carbon neutral, and sustainable energy resource in West Virginia could make an important contribution to enhancing the U.S. energy security and for decreasing CO2 emissions."

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)


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