Can pouring water into a volcano create usable energy?

Alternative renewable energy is a hot topic in Oregon, where geothermal energy developers have devised a plan to capture the power of volcanic heat and turn it into a usable resource.

Alternative renewable energy is a hot topic in Oregon, where geothermal energy developers have devised a plan to capture the power of volcanic heat and turn it into a usable resource.

Though innovative and surprising, the idea behind the process is relatively simple: by heating up some 24 million gallons of cold water in a dormant volcano, steam hot enough to produce enormous amounts of energy will surface. While the technique will only work with geothermal energy generated by volcanoes, it benefits from not depending on inconsistent variables like wind or sunlight.

The Newberry Volcano, 20 miles south of Bend, Oregon, will host the project in mid-2012, but the process to actually capture energy from the experiment isn't quite as straightforward as boiling water in a teakettle. The new technology that geothermal energy developers believe can do this effectively is called Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS). EGS is based on a technique called hydroshearing, which creates small fractures in the volcanic rock by pumping water through wells.

While similar in theory, hydroshearing is different than hydraulic fracturing or fracking, which is used to recover natural gases from deep formations of a sedimentary rock called shale. The fractures created by fracking are much larger than those intended to be produced from hydroshearing, and have been the apparent cause of earthquakes in Oklahoma and Ohio.

Ernie Majer, a seismologist from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, told The Associated Press that there isn't much risk of danger in the Newberry experiment, but if there is an earthquake, the U.S. Department of Energy will temporarily shut it down.

Despite concerns, however, the U.S. government has shown great support for the project. The Department of Energy is funding half of the $43 million project with stimulus funds. The rest of it will be funded by private investments from organizations including AltaRock, a renewable energy development company, and Google, which will contribute $6.3 million, the AP reports.

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