West Virginia could very well be considered the eye of the storm in the United States’ renewable energy debate. Much of the state’s economy is dependent on coal mining, which in turn generates 97% of West Virginia’s electricity generation capacity. Coal mining has its controversies, but is arguably one reason why West Virginia’s financial house is in order, compared to the budgetary mess that has plagued most states for the past few years. But there is growing concern over the technologies used to extract coal in the state—and likewise West Virginia and its industries in turn are quick to snarl at Washington, DC and tell the federal government to back off.
But now there may be more than coal in West Virginia’s future. A project that Google in part funded has revealed enormous geothermal resources under the state that could double West Virginia’s electricity capacity. Most of the reserve sits in the eastern half of the Mountain State, and in the future could provide power to much of the eastern seaboard.
Researchers have long suspected that West Virginia had geothermal potential, which is curious because most of this energy source is concentrated in the western United States. Geothermal energy sources tend to be where tectonic activity is commonplace, due to relatively young mountain formations that facilitate such an environment. But now engineers believe it is possible to harvest energy in regions like West Virginia that are “tectonically stable.” And if only 2 percent of available geothermal energy could be harvested, that would still be almost 19,000 megawatts of cleaner energy available for powering homes and offices.
Questions still remain: the amount of drilling necessary to exploit this resource, for example, is still uncertain. The trick would be to drill in areas with the highest concentrations of heat at the shallowest of depths. Researchers, many of whom were from Southern Methodist University, stated the study’s accuracy could have some gaps—in geek speak, there could be an error in the region’s total capacity, deviating anywhere from minus-10 to 10 percent.
Nevertheless, the project could help sell West Virginia’s citizens on clean energy’s promise. Too often the hype over renewable energy has been concentrated on both coasts, with the large expansive middle left out of the conversation—and leery of any change because much of the region’s economy, from industry to agriculture, relies on fossil fuels. If the tapping into this geothermal hotbed creates good paying jobs while generating green electricity, West Virginians could be sold on a clean energy future—and at the very least, they could benefit from employment . . . at a geothermal-powered Google data center, perhaps?