The people, science and technology behind discovery

Geothermal Heats Up

Geothermal energy's time has come. One company plans to be the
North American leader

By Graham Chandler

In early 2008, no one knew that Barack Obama would today be president of the United States and that one of his top policies would be to wean his country off imported and non-renewable energy. But that's when geothermal energy firm Magma Energy Corp. of Vancouver (now Alterra Power Corp) was created by mining entrepreneur Ross Beaty and colleagues. After a brief 18 months, the company is well on its way to becoming the pre-eminent explorer, developer and producer of this green renewable energy resource.

"Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good," quips Francis Monastero, president of this young and talented company, that didn't plan on Mr Obama being elected. "Our reason for getting into the geothermal business was the fundamental strength of the industry of this resource," he says. "We saw it as a business that can provide a large amount of green energy to the market." In Fall 2008, Magma acquired an operating plant at Soda Lake, Nevada (23 MW nameplate capacity) and also has amassed a formidable land position approaching 600,000 acres for exploration—over 100,000 of those in the US Great Basin hotbed. In addition, the company explores in Chile, Argentina and Peru.

Geothermal energy utilizes the earth's natural heat by sourcing superheated water found in fractures in the earth's crust—heated by magma flowing in rocks deep below the surface. Accessed through drilling production wells, the steam is used to generate electricity and then cooled and returned to the source where the cycle is repeated. It's not entirely new: the world's first geothermal electric generating plant, at Lardello, Italy has been producing for more than a century, since 1904.

As a reliable and regular energy source, "it is one of the most prolific of the renewables," says Monastero, who holds a PhD in geophysics and previously headed the US Navy Geothermal Program Office where he learned the business supervising development and operation of the 270 MW Coso geothermal power project at China Lake, California. "It runs practically 24/7," he says. "At our Soda Lake binary facility, we average on line availability in excess of 90 percent of the time—that's comparable to nuclear—and much higher than solar or wind."

How does one go about finding the best places to tap into nature's super-heated steam vaults? Monastero explains. "Geothermal resources occur in proximity to plate boundaries and when you look for geothermal resources that's one of the first orders of sorting that you can do… then look for volcanic occurrences or places where the crust is thin, under tension or extended. Those are the first two sorting levels," he says.

"Then you're fundamentally in a province, in our case the Great Basin [western US]. This is a big place so you need a sufficient geologic data base to quickly sort through hundreds of thousands of acres. You want to be able to identify those locations where there is a confluence of key parameters," he says. "In general you're winnowing large blocks of land away so you can really look at the most promising."

Various sensing methods are used—gravity, electromagnetics (EM), magnetotellurics (MT). "The electrical field exploration tools are both a gift and a curse," says Monastero. "Too frequently people become fooled into believing they have the right answer. Looking strictly at an electrical survey for example, inevitably leads to the wrong decision because they [electrical indicators] are non-unique."

Monastero talks of an MT survey Magma recently completed in one of their two concessions in Chile, located 350 km south of Santiago and surrounded by old volcanic cones and several hot springs, geysers and fumaroles. "We identified what is almost a classic geothermal feature," he says. "It has a tremendous background resistivity low with a beautiful resistivity high that forms a path to the system, and the fumarole on the surface can't hurt." Magma instituted a slim hole program and were able to get one hole down to a depth of a little more than 650 metres before winter came in and they had to stop. "But the temperatures we experienced at that depth were in excess of 200 degrees," Monastero says. "So we are really excited about it. That's an example of a successful application of MT." But he cautions, "MT's a beautiful technique that you want to use it in combination with a number of other techniques to get a really definitive answer—or at least one in which you have some confidence."

Magma uses Geosoft's gridding features extensively in exploration. Chief Geophysicist Gary Oppliger says the company is able to do prospect evaluations across the western US with it. "Oasis montaj' is optimal for the gridding of our potential field data, i.e., aeromagnetics and gravity. These are typically regional surveys which we are able to integrate with detailed project level surveys." He says one exploration layer consists of these gravity and magnetics maps which are given favoured types of processing treatments within Oasis montaj to reveal the features they're interested in.

"Another critical layer is basic topography and geology," he continues. "We need that reference information and fortunately it's available digitally at high-resolution. The geologic information is typically of lower resolution from scanned versions of paper maps to provide geologic contexts. In the future we hope to have a better integration with attributed geologic maps."

After those layers he says importantly comes property. "Property includes the status of land; whether it has restrictions; whether it's government owned. And in particular if it's potentially available for lease option. It's one of our key focusing tools."

With an extensive exploratory drilling program coming up over the next 24 months, borehole data capability will be important too, adds Magma geologist Mary Ohren. "I am confident that Target is the way to go," she says. "We have paper data on lithology and downhole temperatures and surveys that we have put into Target databases from Excel," she says. "And getting borehole data in the right format is important."

Vice President Jordan Hastings, who is responsible for Magma's IT infrastructure, says the company needs to analyze an already large collection of geoscience data: geologic and topographic maps, remote-sensing imagery, gravity, seismic and EM surveys, LiDar, plus a  variety of downhole drill-logs. "We primarily use a combination of ESRI and Geosoft software: ArcGIS together with Target and Oasis montaj," he says. "Magma also is considering the Geosoft DAP approach to data documentation and management [DAP offers a centralized, platform-neutral technology], which will become all the more appealing when hosted.”

"ESRI makes beautiful maps and they are excellent at building geographic data sets," says Hastings. "We are really pleased with the easy integration of ESRI and Geosoft and are hoping to see more of this using DAP in the future." He likes being able to bring cartographic and cadastral data directly into the Geosoft environment, not having to rework it there, "so we have one set of geodata rather than two. We don't want to end up with divergent data sets because of multiple software tools." As a new company, Magma has the opportunity to build all this right from the beginning, and Hastings leads the charge. "It's our objective to get this complex arrangement of vertical data from boreholes, horizontal data from various fields, and the geographic underpinnings under management now," he says.

Magma president Monastero thinks Magma's timing in entering the geothermal arena couldn't be better. "We are seeing a fundamental change in the industry," he says. Recalling past ups and downs with renewable energy sources, "it's one that will endure this time around." Clearly the investing public agrees: in June this year, at the tender age of 16 months Magma went into an unpredictable capital marketplace and handily sold out an initial public offering of $100 million in stock.