Exploring the geothermal potential of NM

Cyrq Energy Inc. operates the Lightning Dock geothermal power plant shown here in southern New Mexico. The state Oil Conservation Commission has settled a dispute over the planned expansion of the plant.

Copyright © 2023 Albuquerque Journal

Promising technological breakthroughs could soon propel geothermal energy into the mainstream of renewable development, and some lawmakers are seeking state investment to help New Mexico get on board.

Senator Jerry Ortiz y Pino, a Democrat from Albuquerque, is sponsoring a new Geothermal Resources Development Act this year to provide $25 million in state funding for grants and loans for research and development of geothermal energy projects statewide. It would also approve annual funding of $1.1 million to advance geothermal resources, including $600,000 for the Department of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources and $500,000 for a new “Center of Excellence” at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro.

Senator Jerry Ortiz and Pino

A second bill by Ortiz y Pino calls for up to $10 million a year in tax breaks for geothermal projects. And separately, Democrat William Soules of Las Cruces is sponsoring a bill for tax credits of up to 30% on the purchase and installation costs of ground source heat pumps, which use geothermal energy to heat and cool residential, commercial and industrial buildings.

Neither of the bills had been pre-filed as of Wednesday morning, but both senators participated in a working group formed in early 2022 to study geothermal development potential with experts from New Mexico Tech, New Mexico State University, Sandia National Laboratories and environmental groups .

“The working group met in the spring and summer and we decided to move forward with the legislation because this is too good an opportunity to pass up,” said Ortiz y Pino. “The potential for geothermal development in New Mexico is so great that I truly believe it could be the last missing piece to make alternative energy sustainable here.”

Over the next decade, it could begin providing baseload generation capacity to provide continuous power as a backup for intermittent solar and wind systems.

“It’s available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” said Ortiz y Pino. “It’s always there.”

Geothermal generation is not new, with 3.7 gigawatts of household electricity currently provided by geothermal power plants, according to the US Department of Energy.

New Mexico already operates a geothermal plant in the Animas Valley near Lordsburg, New Mexico Bootheel, which began operating in 2014 and provides up to 15 megawatts of electricity to Public Service Co. of New Mexico. In fact, as a state, New Mexico is ranked the sixth-highest geothermal potential in the nation by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, said Shari Kelly, senior geophysicist at NM Tech.

That’s on the Rio Grande Rift, which runs southwest from north-central New Mexico down into the Bootheel, Kelly said. As subsurface movement slowly pulls the east and west sides of the rift apart, fissures are created that release heat upward to the surface, making it more amenable to geothermal development compared to other locations.

“NM Tech, NMSU, and others did a seismic experiment across the rift in the early 2000s,” Kelly said. “The study revealed a hot mantle beneath the top layer of the crack that generates elevated temperatures closer to the surface.”

As precipitation accumulates in mountainous areas and seeps underground, it forms underground reservoirs that often create hot springs across the state.

The geothermal plant near Lordsburg taps one of these underground reservoirs using traditional technology that draws hot water up to produce steam that drives a turbine generator.

But aside from underground reservoirs, a large amount of geothermal energy also comes from hot underground rock formations, which radiate immense heat and create a huge source of untapped energy.

Now new technology is emerging to tap into that heat like a radiator, circulating alternative fluids from the surface through a closed pipe system to absorb the heat and create steam in a continuous flowing process, said environmentalist and working group moderator Tom Solomon.

Until recently, traditional drilling methods prevented cutting into hard, deep, hot rock. But today’s advanced fracking and horizontal drilling technologies developed by the oil and gas industry could help open up these subterranean rock formations for geothermal generation. Sandia and other research organizations are also developing more advanced drill bits needed to cut hard rock and withstand high temperatures.

Many companies are now working to harness this technology, including a Canadian company that has conducted experimental drilling at the Bootheel.

“If this technology advances over the next decade, it could provide the additional clean energy we need to move to completely zero-carbon generation in New Mexico,” Solomon told the Journal.

It could also create alternative jobs for workers in the oil and gas industry, since emerging geothermal development technology would rely on traditional derricks to drill into underground rock formations, Ortiz y Pino said.

Proponents of the geothermal law envisage a two-phase development strategy, beginning with an aggressive effort to encourage greater use of existing technologies to harness geothermal energy to heat and cool buildings across the state, while encouraging more research and development into geothermal power generation will. In the second phase, which could gain momentum over the next decade, government efforts would focus on applying emerging hot rock generation technology to build new power plants.