Yellowstone Supervolcano as an Energy Source?

Grand Prismatic Spring Yellowstone overhead zoom

I came across the National Geographic article linked below not long ago and quickly learned there was a LOT of buzz around this idea. Some of the buzz came with BS headlines from less reputable news outlets, which I’ll write about in another post.

NatGeo: Yellowstone Supervolcano Could Be an Energy Source. But Should It? The national park could power the entire continental U.S. with clean energy. Here’s why it remains untapped.

I learned the trigger for these stories was a thought experiment study by a NASA engineer at JPL who was a member of the ad-hoc NASA Advisory Council on Planetary Defense. You can read the whole study in PDF form hosted on a NASA-JPL site here. The study really was a fantastic project. Though I admit I only read small portions as it is quite long and thorough. The project was really focused on defense of humanity against a disaster. However, the NatGeo article focuses on tapping a huge energy source.

As for powering the the US with cheap Yellowstone power…

Normally I am all for using technology to our advantage, but that’s a problem if it’s in conflict with public lands and a natural wonder like Yellowstone. Even if they did this just outside the park boundary, that might be too close if it’s a lot of development. Right now there are just more public lands (National Forest) and ranches around the park mostly. I think I’ve heard that wind, solar, and tide energy could also power the entire US.

Now what about preventing a supervolcanic eruption?

That’s definitely a useful idea to investigate. What if you can cool the magma chamber significantly? There is a danger then of the mantle plume moving to the side and going around the cooled magma chamber to find another way up through the crust. I doubt we have any hope to alter the large processes occurring in the Earth’s mantle, nor probably would we want to.

I have also heard (I think it was the Science Friday radio show) someone asking about the possibility of drilling down into the actual magma chamber to reduce the pressure and prevent an eruption. The geologist responded by saying anything like that would be a tiny pinprick to a magma chamber. Even if you had a ton of those, it wouldn’t make any difference in the movement of the magma.

Despite some headlines, I wouldn’t say they have actually proposed this as any kind of actionable solution. They write “we assess whether future supervolcanic eruptions could be dampened, delayed, or prevented by engineering solutions.” The study was just a rough kind of “is it possible?” thought experiment, which is great.

The more I read, the more I realize we are talking very long time scales here. Cooling the magma chamber will take forever just because it’s so big. Most actions we can undertake for the foreseeable future will really have a small impact, so a long period is required. In any case, when the times comes for us to need to do something, we will know a hell of a lot more than we do now. I say that considering what we have learned in geology in just the last 100 years. The timescales for Yellowstone eruptions are on the order of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions of years.

“James Hutton is often viewed as the first modern geologist. In 1785 he presented a paper entitled Theory of the Earth to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. ” –Wikipedia entry on Geology

Ok, so I amend what I said above to say 200 years instead of 100 years 🙂

The Geysers – Largest Producer of Geothermal Electricity in the World

Reading up on geothermal energy, I also came across The Geysers in Northern California. I hadn’t known about that, very cool.

“Naturally occurring steam field reservoirs below the earth’s surface are found in the Mayacamas Mountains, located north of San Francisco The Geysers, as it is known as the largest producer of geothermal electricity in the world drawing steam from than 350 wells. The Geysers border between Lake, Mendocino, and, Sonoma counties; and provide power to Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake, Marin, and Napa counties. Covering more than 45 square miles, commercial geothermal power has been continuously generated at The Geysers since 1960. There are 18 geothermal plants which use heat from the earth’s interior to produce electricity around the clock.”

There is a good Wikipedia page on The Geysers as well.

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