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Interview with Maria Richards at the Geothermal Lab at SMU in Texas

Southern Methodist University, Dallas/ Texas (source: flickr/ euthman, creative commons)
Alexander Richter 3 Mar 2016

Utilising geothermal energy in oil & gas fields could expand the geothermal sector dramatically and is the key topic of the annual Power Plays conference organized by SMU in Texas. Here we talk with Maria Richards on SMU, the conference and her view on geothermal energy in oil and gas fields.

Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, Texas is one of the few universities in the United States with a dedicated geothermal laboratory and/ or program. The school has played a particularly important role in looking at ways for a technology transfer from the oil & gas sector into geothermal.

This year the school will be holding its 8th international geothermal energy conference, “Power Plays: Geothermal Energy in Oil and Gas Fields”. It will take place April 25-26, 2016 at the SMU Campus in Dallas, Texas.

We have been covering some of the work done on geothermal work on oil & gas fields in the U.S., and therefore have been following a bit the work by the SMU Geothermal Lab. So it was great being able to do an interview with Maria Richards, the Coordinator for the Geothermal Lab, and President-elect of the Geothermal Resources Council (GRC).

How did Southern Methodist University get involved in geothermal?

The SMU Geothermal Laboratory was founded in 1970 by Dave Blackwell. As a new faculty member at SMU, Dave worked with graduate and undergraduate students to build upon his PhD research. They collected heat flow data including high resolution well temperatures from surface to bottom depth, thermal conductivity of well core/cuttings, and natural heat production of related rocks. The initial research was focused in the Pacific Northwest states, and research has continued to expand across the U.S.

Maria Richards, SMU

What impact has the research at the SMU Geothermal Lab had on the O&G community in the US?

The O&G community has long used the Geothermal Map of North America, produced by the SMU Geothermal Lab, to understand the thermal history of sedimentary basins. SMU heat flow and temperature-at-depth maps assist companies in determining where to drill for oil and gas. By knowing the temperatures at various depths in a sedimentary basin, O&G companies can determine if formation temperatures are within the range required to mature organic matter into oil and gas they can extract.

Today the O&G industry comes to us to learn more about opportunities to generate energy from produced fluids and surface equipment. Our Power Plays conference is an opportunity for them to network and learn about new research and technologies to assist them in both practical and creative ways to use all the resources they have within their fields.

What kind of technology transfer is available between geothermal and O&G?

The first item that comes to mind is improved techniques for fracturing rocks. Geothermal has been fracturing rocks for decades in order to stimulate the production reservoir. The O&G drilling of horizontal wells has assisted the geothermal industry in steering wells to better capture geothermal fluids. Today I had a meeting with the Society of Petroleum Engineers to discuss a workshop with the geothermal community to exchange knowledge on corrosive drilling environments. Over the years, many O&G employees have mentioned to me that in the past they were part of a geothermal team. With the current downtrend in the O&G industry, the geothermal community has an opportunity to bring experienced O&G personnel into projects and to continue this knowledge exchange.

What does SMU Geothermal Lab see as key opportunities for the geothermal sector?

The ability to expand into sedimentary basins is still wide open for the geothermal community. Although the 2004 Geothermal Map of North America showed large amounts of stored heat beyond the western United States, little focus on developing this resource for EGS or direct use has occurred. EGS development in sedimentary formations would give the geothermal community an opportunity to drill in soft rock settings, providing a stepping stone toward drilling in hard basement rocks. Sedimentary basin settings also lends itself to more interaction with the O&G industry. We still have much to gain from their knowledge and experience.

What does SMU Geothermal Lab see as key opportunities for the O&G sector?

The O&G industry is focused on producing oil and gas. Their payback time for a well is often only a few years. Geothermal projects are developed on a long-term payback of years to decades. The ability to produce geothermal power on-site for an O&G operator is out of their current business model because of the timeframe, yet the 24 hour 365 day production of electricity does add up over the life of a field and offers them an additional profit source. Geothermal energy is like frosting on a cake. Once it starts to be included in the full life cycle costs/profit of a field, then it will become an automatic addition to every field.

The SMU Geothermal Lab Power Plays Conference and Workshop is now being held for the 8th time. What is the key driver for SMU to continue hosting it?

Over the years we have learned that people from many different sectors are needed to develop geothermal energy in oil and gas fields. Each time we host the conference we bring in new perspectives and provide a setting where experts from all the different sectors can meet, network, see project updates and discuss the issues involved in generating geothermal energy in oil and gas fields.

We also love the networking and research it brings to our Geothermal Lab faculty, staff, and students. It is especially important for us to give students the opportunity to apply what they are learning in the geophysics – geology courses. I think it also shows all of us the importance of not giving up on an idea because it did not develop as expected. Each time we host the conference there is renewed enthusiasm and new ideas that propel all of us forward. If Mitchell Energy and Devon Energy had quit after a few years on developing directional drilling, we would be out of gas today and the shale plays would never have happened. While it is taking longer than expected to generate geothermal power from oil and gas fields, we are not behind the research curve if you look at the timeline for directional drilling.

What do you see as a key theme for the event this year?

Unique combinations of resources: desalinization of produced fluids for drinking water, use of produced water for solar troughs, stored geothermal energy for peak load demand, and even more outside the box is converting a coal plant to an EGS plant. The concept of reuse and recycling of resources are the main themes for this year’s conference. It’s interesting for me to see how the abstracts submitted all merged onto this topic.

On a more personal note, you have recently been elected as President-Elect of the Geothermal Resources Council (GRC), the primary geothermal educational organization. What do you see as your key challenges and targets in your new role?

The geothermal industry is so small in comparison to most other related industries, mining, O&G, environment, and the related technologies. For geothermal energy to become fully integrated into the US and World market, I feel we need to expand our thinking and become more welcoming to other’s ideas.

Geothermal also could use a marketing plan to help us educate the public. On Twitter, the largest geothermal site has about 2,500 followers. SMU graduate student Andrés Ruzo’s TED Talk on the Boiling River has over 520,000 views, so we know that geothermal is of interest to thousands of people if we learn how to reach them.

How can people get more information about SMU Geothermal Lab research, and about the conference?

The conference website can be found here: http://www.smu.edu/Dedman/Academics/Programs/GeothermalLab/Conference

We have lots of data, graphs and project examples along with conference information on our website at www.smu.edu/geothermal. I can always be reached at mrichard@smu.edu or at geothermal@smu.edu.