Something's Cooking Under West Virginia's Surface

Iconic coal state is geothermal hot spot

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West Virginia is synonymous with coal mining, but a new study suggests the Mountain State is also a prime location for geothermal energy production.

A subsurface map produced by Southern Methodist University with funding from the philanthropic arm of search engine giant Google, found a large swath of geothermal hot spots in the eastern portion of the state that could be tapped to produce energy for Atlantic Seaboard communities.

At depths ranging from three to eight kilometers, temperatures in rock formations were found hovering in the 200 degrees Celsius range. That’s similar to the amount of heat produced by well-documented geothermal fields in places like Reykjavik, Iceland and The Geysers in Northern California, where substantial energy projects are already underway.

While geothermal energy production is accompanied by moderate environmental impacts (including low-level induced seismicity), when compared to coal it’s the difference between a sibling slug bug to the shoulder and a Mike Tyson uppercut.

The West Virginia discovery couldn’t have come at a better time. The Obama administration has committed to funding solar and geothermal projects to the tune of $467 million via the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act and just last month U.S. Energy Sec. Steven Chu announced another $20 million round of federal funding for geothermal research.

Hopefully, the funding push will encourage the private sector and West Virginia to consider turning away from the environmentally destructive coal energy cycle and start developing a cleaner, more sustainable energy future. After all, 320,000 Icelanders can’t be wrong.

David Lawlor was a writer in the Development department. His environmental activism stems from an affinity for nature and the deep ecology philosophy espoused by the Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess.