Despite the truly apocalyptic danger to the climate that fossil energy poses, it always seems to me that it is renewable energy that gets more than its fair share of worries about its safety. Will solar use water? Will wind kill birds? Does geothermal cause volcanoes? Could Ormat’s proposed 330 megawatt geothermal plant in Sarulla, North Sumatra be unsafe? Last year, our own Maurice Picow posed the query.
“One small problem – there is a chance that Ormat’s technology might cause a volcano eruption”.
Now that there has been a volcano, a little over a year later, was it in fact due to geothermal drilling? Was Ormat’s Sarulla plant connected with the recent earthquake of Mt Merapi, in Indonesia? Could it be Ormat’s fault?
No, actually. Even if geothermal does provoke volcanic activity, the project has not been built, yet. Because of pricing disputes, only finally resolved in 2010, field development and power plant construction has yet to be started.
The price had doubled by this year from the original estimates when the project was initially proposed in 2005, to US$1 billion. PLN, the Indonesian electric company that was to buy the power had previously agreed to pay $0.0464 per KWh in a power purchase agreement, but with the cost rises since 2005, the consortium of developers that included Ormat was no longer able to offer power at that price. The new deal was finally signed in April 2010 for $0.0679 per kWh for 30 years, just under 7 cents.
So, a non existent (yet) geothermal project cannot cause a volcano.
But the second reason is just simple geography. Even if the geothermal project had been begun, it is a good 2,313 kilometers (1,437 miles) from where the volcano erupted.
That is about twice the distance from Jerusalem to Mecca.
Indonesia was already going out on a limb, for a largely Muslim nation, that has no diplomatic relationship with Israel, to work with a part-Israeli firm as part of the consortium developing the Sarulla project. Ormat owns 12.75 percent and provides the engineering know-how to a consortium that includes PT Medco Energi Internasional which owns 37.25 percent of the project, Itochu (25 percent) and Kyushu Electric (25 percent).
The plant will use Ormat’s Geothermal Combined Cycle Units (GCCU) which are more efficient than conventional steam power plants. These will capture the steam from the wells and produce energy throughout the day without any interruptions, and geothermal fluids are to be re-injected in the underground wells to avoid depletion of the gases. In a highly sustainable design, the steam itself will also not be released into the atmosphere, but will be recycled back through the ground.
Indonesia, a developing nation, highly dependent on its oil for electricity, is to be commended for encouraging clean energy development.
Like other nations in the “ring of fire,” it has high volcanic risk. And yes, that usually goes together with greater geothermal potential. From California, Japan, New Zealand and Indonesia,where there is volcanic activity, there is geothermal potential. In Indonesia’s case, enough to produce 27,000 mgw of electricity for a nation sorely in need of new electricity sources.
Image: Google Maps
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