I am writing this the day before the already failed COP26 meeting in Glasgow. Failed in the respect that neither the leaders of China, nor Russia, will partake. Failed also in the respect that the leaders of Japan, Australia and Brazil are travelling there hellbent on stopping or slowing down any progress. Failed in the respect that the other leaders lack the testicular fortitude of making the decisions needed to save our planet.
Greta was correct when she referred to the COP26 as “a meeting of bla, bla, bla, bla”. We all know that there will be a depressing agreement coming out that contains even more of too little and too late, and that most countries won’t even stick to that.
It would be easy to be disheartened here, but there is hope. First of all, people are now in general onboard of the changes that are needed, both in regards of technology, and how we live.
The other and more surprising good thing, is that where the politicians saw Greta as just a cute little girl, she hit tremendously hard in many board rooms. The boards of large companies consist of non-to-cuddly types that are intelligent and highly risk-adverse.
In an increasing number of cases, they have been intelligent enough to correctly identify the climate change as a risk to their profit margins. And they also recognized that having an angry Greta showing up with millions of followers consisting of the future customers of their products, saying no to what they are doing, would rapidly hurt their wallets. Also, in some cases even their own children stopped talking to them.
When companies like Swedish Steel, mining-juggernaut LKAB, Mercedes, Volvo, Vargas Group, and so on start to pour untold billions in your favourite currency to become CO2-neutral, it will have a rapid and very noticeable difference.
What did they do? Well, their billions solved how to make better and cheaper batteries for cars and grid storage. And they solved how to get rid of the 7 percent of the global CO2 emissions that comes out of the steel industry.
As such, those companies have done more for the environment than all of the worlds’ testicularly challenged politicians put together, at least measured in CO2-net balance. There you have the Greta-effect put into practice.
I am ranting, you tend to do that when you believe in things. Let us return to the subject at hand shall we?
Risks of geothermal energy
Caveat of this two-part odyssey into geothermal risks: I am here writing from the perspective of geothermal energy extracted from, or adjacent from, a magma reservoir. Most of it should though be the same for any type of geothermal energy extraction.
As and when you are building a big power plant the local population will generally be worried about how it will affect their daily lives. I understand that completely, I would be worried and want to know things about a huge plant blooming up next to my house. Especially if I did not understand the technology used.
This is becoming more and more important since we live in the time of “expert YouTubers” making clickbait videos filled with false information, scaring the living daylights out of people.
Caveat: There are wonderful experts and informed non-experts out there making insightful, correct, and informative videos, but those tend to get lower ratings than the clickbait on YouTube.
So, you can either fight fire with fire via making your own videos, talk to influential science YouTubers, write articles, use social media, etcetera. Or, you can do something that the clickbait producers can not and will not do.
That is to quite simply walk down the neighbourhood and invite the locals to come over for a coffee to ask their questions. Local meetings are wonderful if handled correctly.
If you just start talking honestly about risks, and what you are doing to mitigate them, people will feel good and ask their questions. This is about your neighbours being heard and stating their opinions about what will impact their lives, take them seriously.
They deserve to know about the risks, but they also deserve to give input on operations in regards of their quality of life. And they also deserve to be part of the esthetical side of things like how the plant will look, and if there will be a garden. Gardens are very important, and a well-cut hedge will hide away things that are not beautiful in a nice manner.
If you fail at this you will have a lot of locals against you, they will in turn influence the local politicians and those will in their turn contact the permitting agencies, and you are sitting there without your sought-after permit.
If done correctly you will end up with local support, and probably a plant that is looking way better, and holding that expensive permit that you needed.
Now it is finally time for the risks associated with a geothermal plant. The risks are roughly presented in the order of when you build and start your plant.
Caveat: I am not a drilling engineer. Even though I have read extensively about the subject, there might be errors in this text. I hope that any honest mistake will be corrected in the comments below by the expert on the subject that is reading this (Greetings in the direction of Scotland).
Bet you did not see mud coming up? Drill mud, or drilling liquids, are the most common source of problems in the drilling part when you construct a geothermal plant, or during any drilling into the ground for that matter. If used in an unsafe manner it will cause harm to fish and wildlife (if it comes out into nearby streams), and it may make the soil surrounding the drill-pad toxic and impact the water-table.
Before we go into how to mitigate the risks, I need to explain what drill mud is, and why it must be used when drilling.
When you drill a geothermal well you need to keep the drill-head cool, cool down the bedrock you are drilling into, stabilize the borehole, prevent water ingress and remove the rock-waste that the drilling is producing.
Drill mud typically comes in 3 different flavours. The first one is water-based, it contains water, bentonite clay (E558 when food grade), barite (barium ore, barium is commonly used at hospital for enemas, so mostly harmless), lignosulfonate (food preservative), table-salt, and a few other kitchen chemicals.
So, what is that horrible lignosulfonate? It is the fibrous residue from papermills, it does not taste particularly good, but it is not toxic.
The risk associated with water-based drill mud comes from unsafe storage pits allowing the drill mud to flow out into local streams, and enough silt and clay will suffocate the fish in the stream. Great care must be taken when you build the storage pit so that no leakage is possible. This is also good business policy, drill mud is expensive and typically stands for 10 percent of the cost of drilling a borehole, so if the containment bursts your cost will be several percent higher.
The drawback with water-based drill mud is that it is not stable at higher temperatures. It is therefore normally used at shallow to medium depths where the rock is not too hot. It is mandated to be used in most places during the shallow parts of well-drilling due to it being comparatively environmentally friendly if handled and stored correctly.
Now, let us talk about synthetic drill mud. Synthetic sounds toxic, doesn’t it? Well, not really in this case. The synthetic part in the name comes from the use of non-mineral oil. In other words, it is drill mud containing either plant-based oil or biodiesel.
Otherwise, it mostly contains the same things that the water-based drill mud does, the biggest change is that it also contains emulsifiers to bind the water and the oil together in a suspension. If you just remove the barite and switch out the lignosulfonate to corn-starch you have liquid margarine.
You still must build a very sturdy containment and storage pit, otherwise the fishes might not be happy with you. It is also important to have a sturdy fence so that animals do not drown in your giant tube of industrial margarine.
Synthetic drill mud can withstand higher temperatures and is often mandated to be used at intermediate depths for environmental reasons.
Now it is time for the bad boy. As you get down to more extreme temperatures and pressures the synthetic drill mud will start to degrade at an alarming rate and you risk that your drilling venture will seize up.
It is now time to sadly start using oil-based drill mud. Typically, it contains mineral diesel, and the lignosulfonate is now being changed into fly-ash. This is something that you wish to limit the use of, and use at depth, and only when it is a must to use.
It must be used and stored in a safe manner. There is a lot of work going on to push up the temperature range of synthetic drill mud to further limit the use of oil-based drill mud. Sadly, we are for now stuck with it for uses in the last stretch of geothermal borehole drilling.
If you build your drill mud storage pit in reinforced concrete and in an interesting shape, you will not only get a safe containment. You will also after a thorough cleaning get a garden pool that you can stick fish and plants in together with a fountain.
Drill mud comes with a set of professionals like mud engineers, mud-loggers and compliance engineers. They will work hard to limit the risks, and to make certain that as little drill mud as possible is used and lost during drilling, after all they want to save money and avoid that the company is fined for environmental infractions.
Gas, gunk and heavy metal
Volcanoes and volcano-related geothermal fields are natures industrial accidents. If you leave them to their own devices they will emit poisonous gases, heavy metals, and all sorts of interesting toxic minerals and chemicals.
This might sound counter-intuitive to the layperson, but if you think another step further you will see that volcanic activity and geothermal waters are busy constructing what we later will mine for metals.
During drilling the drill mud will contain gases that used to be trapped in the rock at depth like SO2, CO2, fluorine, etcetera. It will though most often not contain methane or ethane. It could though contain hydrogen and hydrogen sulphide.
Since the gases are toxic, obnoxious and in some cases could catch fire, the mud-loggers will take samples constantly for the mud engineers to test. The compliance engineers will in turn make certain that set limits will not be exceeded to safeguard the workers’ health and the environment.
Sadly, it is not possible at this stage to capture the gases that are released, but the release will be small compared to what the volcano is releasing anyway. This is an area where new technology will be needed.
The drill mud itself will drag up silicates and sulphur-compounds that often contain heavy metals, this needs to be removed from the drill mud during operations, and the waste must be stored safely and properly.
The third problem is natural geothermal water. It can be a hotbed for heavy metals and other unsavoury chemical compounds. During normal operations this water is cleaned and reused, but when drilling it is basically left in the drill mud and reused.
The gas is the big problem here. It will impact the lives of the local residents. Obviously, you will measure the levels of released gas diligently, but it will stink. Let us be honest, volcanoes are incredibly stinky.
If you have residents next door to the plant, you will have to limit drilling hours and avoid weekends. People tend to be accepting during the day, but at night and on the weekends, they are far less accepting. After all, who would like their garden salad, baked potato, steak, and beer accompanied by gentle wafts of rotten eggs?
On top of that, a drill rig is incredibly noisy, and who would wish that at night and during the weekends?
So, what to do as you are getting close to your target? After all, it is now to hot to stop the drill since it would seize up. One thing you could do is to buy up the properties around you, but you will find that a fairly large set of people are fond of their houses and gardens and flat out refuses to sell them to you for demolishment.
Let us be economical here, a seized drill will be insanely expensive, especially if you need to start all over again. 30 million Euro expensive, plus costs for delays and the risk of having to write off the entire venture.
Multiply that by several boreholes and it is well worth to open the wallet a bit. First you buy up a few houses, you can after all use them for housing staff, and when you are done, and the plant is operational you can sell them (at least if you build a good-looking plant and plant a nice garden around it).
So, what to do with those who do not wish to move? Well, pay them recompensation and when you need to go 24/7, send them on an all-inclusive cruise to the Caribbean, or if they need to stay and work, put them up at an all-inclusive 5-star hotel.
Comparatively this is pocket money in relation to the risks of having to scrap the entire project. Trust me, nobody will hate you as they sip on an Aviation cocktail in the Caribbean Ocean seated at their balcony cabin at sunset.
In the next instalment I will get into earthquakes, more gases, and the risks involved with drilling into a magma-reservoir. I promise to gently shake things up a bit.