The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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June 12, 2011

Legislators eye W.Va. geothermal potential

— A recent study on West Virginia’s geothermal potential had some promising results, and the state’s congressional delegation is eyeing the possibility of a new energy boom.

West Virginia’s vast coal and recently discovered shale gas resources already make the state a fairly powerful player in the energy market, but looking to other energy sources may even further expand that role. Renewable energies are slowly working their way into the state, and federal lawmakers are all looking at the growing industry.

The discovery of vast, previously unknown geothermal potential could double the state’s generating capacity. Scientists at Southern Methodist University’s Geothermal Laboratory found the ground beneath Tucker, Randolph, Pocahontas, and Greenbrier counties is likely viable for geothermal production.

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said all renewable energy sources should be explored, particularly those that attract more jobs to West Virginia.

“Renewable energy is a very valuable component of our energy future, but it is not going to be a serious competitor to traditional fossil fuels for quite some time, in part because the private sector has not yet made the sizable investments needed to build the renewable sector,” Rahall said.

The geothermal potential of the state is not new. However, new data from SMU researchers revealed West Virginia had much greater potential than what was generally thought. The study called West Virginia the “most attractive area for geothermal energy development in the eastern one-third of the country.”

According to one of the researchers, the geothermal potential beneath the United States could match current U.S. demand for 10,000 years.

The idea that renewable energy sources, such as geothermal, will be a partner, not a competitor, to traditional fuel sources in West Virginia, is increasingly popular among lawmakers.

A spokesperson for Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said Capito supports a diverse, “all-of-the-above energy plan.”

“West Virginians should not have to choose whether to buy gas or groceries when we have the resources and tools to increase our own energy supplies right here in the United States,” said spokesperson Jamie Corley. “Capito considers it a blessing that West Virginia has abundant domestic resources like coal and natural gas, which power the nation, and she will continue to raise awareness about the vital role these resources play in our energy security.”

Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., also backs the “all-of-the-above” strategy and says it is about reworking the nation’s energy policy to an increased focus on domestic energy sources.

“The United States is suffering from a lack of vision on energy policy,” McKinley said. “We need an all-of-the-above energy policy in America that lets energy producers produce energy, provides for responsible environmental and safety protections, reduces our dependence on foreign oil and establishes a level playing field for all energy sources.”

Though the general mood toward renewables is not antagonistic, West Virginia lawmakers caution not to discount coal in developing a “comprehensive” national energy base. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who has promoted several alternative-use coal technologies, also said removal of dependence on foreign oil is a reason to increase exploration of all energy sources.

“Moving forward, ach-ieving true energy independence demands that we must stop demonizing any one resource — like coal — and start developing a comprehensive plan that utilizes all of our domestic resources — coal, natural gas, biomass, nuclear, wind, solar and promising geothermal technologies — so that we can, once and for all, end our dependence on foreign oil within this generation,” Manchin said. 

Rahall said renewable energy, while a valuable component, may not compete with fossil fuels for some time. The reason, he said, is that private industry has not made significant investments in renewables.

Rahall said he also believes further development of alternatives to coal will prove valuable in the future.

“I firmly believe we need to invest in further research and development to allow us to use that resource as efficiently and cleanly as possible,” Rahall said. “I also believe that those who reject the notion of coal-derived liquid fuels are being extremely short-sighted. Certainly such fuel would benefit our efforts to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”

 Rahall said federal officials can do little in regard to energy development, which mostly happens on the state and private levels.

“The most notable exception would be the federal government’s role in supporting energy research and development,” Rahall said. “The Department of Energy is, even now, conducting critical research that could help energy companies access geothermal energy economically and safely, and I have been a strong supporter of their efforts in this field for years.”

Rahall blamed Republicans for “huge cuts” to research programs, including carbon capture and sequestration technologies, that he characterized as a “severe setback to efforts to unlock West Virginia’s geothermal resources.”

“In order to make sure we do these right, we need federal research support for these industries, and, sadly, Republicans seem determined to cut them off at the knees,” Rahall said. “If we do not invest in these technologies, they will not be ready when we need them.”

Rahall added that though fossil fuels cover most of the market now, the need for energy will increase.

“ ... As our nation’s thirst for energy continues to grow, there will be ever greater room and need for development of new energy sources beyond coal, oil and gas,” Rahall said. “Wind, solar and geothermal are all likely prospects for growth in our state and beyond, but we have to be willing as a nation to invest in their potential, something I firmly support.”

— E-mail: tkuykendall@register-herald.com

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