Google Strikes Geothermal Gold in West Virginia

Has Google (s GOOG) struck geothermal gold in West Virginia? A new report shows that heat underground the state could provide 18,890 megawatts of power using today’s geothermal technology — more than the state’s entire power generation capacity of 16,350 megawatts, most of which comes from coal. Google, which has been investing in next-generation clean power technologies, funded the research.

The study from Southern Methodist University used data from thousands of oil, gas and water wells to update the sparse geothermal maps that previously existed for West Virginia. The new information has bumped up the state’s previous geothermal resource estimates by 75 percent, researchers say, making it potentially the largest single site for geothermal power east of the Mississippi. Researchers intend to present the results at the 2010 Geothermal Resources Council annual meeting in Sacramento, Calif. later this month.

Google hasn’t made clear just what it intends to do with this newfound geothermal resource. But Google’s philanthropic arm,, has invested more than $45 million in clean energy technologies, including advanced wind, solar thermal and enhanced geothermal systems. It’s working on several geothermal research projects with the Department of Energy (see here and here for examples), as well as a partnership with General Electric to research technology to capture energy from hot underground rock, as compared to today’s geothermal plants which rely on existing underground hot water reservoirs.

This “hot rock” technology could vastly expand the scope of geothermal power in the U.S. and around the world. has invested in AltaRock, a startup developing the technology though a flagship project in Northern California, but that project had to be suspended earlier this year after drilling gear snagged on underground rock formations.

Geothermal, unlike other renewable energy resources, can be easily used for 24/7 baseload power — that is, it doesn’t sag and surge with the sun and the wind, which is a problem with solar panels and wind turbines. Geothermal projects are on the rise, although venture capital and private equity investors haven’t yet shown much interest in the capital-intensive sector. Companies tackling geothermal power range from the startup Vancouver-based Magma Energy, which went public last year, to geothermal giants like Ormat Technologies.

Google also has an internal solar technology project, as well as an energy-trading subsidiary, Google Energy, which bought 114 MW of wind energy via a wind farm in Iowa owned by NextEra Energy Resources. Google is likely shopping for more clean power to provide its data centers’ vast energy needs and help it with its pledge to go carbon-neutral — could geothermal help with that?

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Image courtesy of Martin_vmorris.