Jan. 12, 2011

New academy focuses on science, technology of geothermal energy development

Renewable energy traineeship program

This semester, several graduate students will be supported by a new National Science Foundation grant to Cornell that focuses on sustainable Earth energy. Cornell was awarded $3 million over five years for an Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship Program (IGERT) to support students seeking degrees in engineering and geosciences with particular focus on renewable and cleaner energy, including carbon management.

The interdisciplinary training program will meet growing national need for a new workforce to design energy solutions to take advantage of Earth's natural resources while remaining in balance with the environment's hydrologic and ecologic services, the IGERT proposal states.

In step with the world's pressing need to explore alternative energy sources, Cornell is taking a leading role in the country's first National Geothermal Academy, expected to launch this summer.

Funded with a $1.2 million Department of Energy grant, the multi-university academy will offer an eight-week, intensive summer training program for undergraduate, master's and Ph.D.-level students in all aspects of geothermal energy.

The technology for harnessing geothermal energy, which captures heat from under the Earth's surface for generating electricity and direct thermal energy applications, is relatively underutilized in high-grade areas of the western U.S. and virtually unknown in the eastern states.

But the potential for geothermal energy to change the landscape of this country's energy use is becoming apparent, said Cornell's Jefferson Tester, the Croll Professor of Sustainable Energy Systems and a principal investigator for the geothermal academy grant.

"The neat part is that using geothermal energy is no longer just limited to the American West," Tester said. "Geothermal heat pumps can be deployed anywhere, as well as direct use of lower-temperature geothermal energy for heating and cooling buildings."

The academy, to be hosted at the University of Nevada-Reno, will invite up to 35 students to attend the June 20-Aug. 12 seminars, and up to 20 of those students will be supported by a DOE fellowship. Tester, who is associate director of energy programs at Cornell's Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, will teach the first course module (June 20-24), "Introduction to Geothermal Energy Utilization." Other courses taught by faculty from various disciplines will cover such topics as public policy and permitting, resource assessment and exploration, and drilling and reservoir engineering.

Tester pointed out that the timing of the academy -- the most comprehensive of its kind in the U.S. -- ties in with Cornell's ongoing efforts to cut its carbon footprint and be a leader in alternative energy exploration and research.

In a paper presented in October 2010, Tester and several other faculty and staff at Cornell, Southern Methodist University and the University of West Virginia formally discussed opportunities for utilizing lower-grade geothermal resources in the Northeast. The paper also made a strong case for exploratory drilling in Ithaca, where the geothermal resource grade is above average for the Northeast region. At Cornell, geothermal heat at temperatures of 120 degrees Celsius (248 degrees Fahrenheit) could be used in an advanced combined heat and power system in conjunction with other renewable resources such as biomass and lake source cooling, both of which are already in use.

Furthermore, Cornell is also launching a graduate-level training program in sustainable energy recovery from the Earth, which includes a section on geothermal energy.

Lower-grade geothermal energy is not widely used in part because of the cost of exploratory and commercial drilling, as well as public concerns about drilling in populated regions, Tester said. However, it could be a key component to a future free from dependence on fossil fuels.

The geothermal academy is led by faculty from the following institutions: University of Nevada-Reno; University of Utah; Stanford University; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Oregon Institute of Technology; Southern Methodist University; and West Virginia University.

For information and how to apply: http://www.unr.edu/geothermal/NGA.htm