Geothermal's pressure test

Geodynamics has spent an estimated $300 million over the past decade on the development of its cutting edge hot dry rocks geothermal technology in the Cooper Basin. Some time in the next month or so it might find out if it has all been worth it.

It may seem overly dramatic to label the fracturing tests that will be undertaken at a single well over the next few weeks as a “make or break” for the company.

But that is the way it is being viewed by Geodynamics and its backers. Success will deliver the key to an estimated 6,500MW of clean, base-load power that could be brought to the grid over the next 10 to 15 years; failure will cause the company to undergo a major rethink of its ambitions.

The rest of the geothermal industry also has a lot at stake on what unfolds nearly 5 kms beneath the surface at the Jolokia 1.  A good result will bring much needed investor confidence, a disappointing or inconclusive result may have the opposite effect. And proponents of other technologies will be looking on with interest, too. None more so, perhaps than nuclear, which has a weaker case to argue in Australia if geothermal looks likely to deliver on its promise.

Next week, Geodynamics is scheduled to begin a “hydraulic fracture stimulation program” at the Jolokia well near Innamincka. Water will be injected to a depth of 4.9kms with the aim of finding natural faults in the super-heated granite and opening these up to create a flow of high pressure hot water which can then be exploited to drive a turbine on the surface via a heat exchanger.

It is not the first time such fracture stimulations have been carried out, but no one has done this at the same depth, temperature (280C) and under such extreme pressure (9,000 PSI). It’s cutting edge stuff and the team at Geodynamics (many of them ex-oil drillers) are clearly excited. Last week they got their first photos of the deep fractures (sent before the specially created imaging tool melted). No one seems to have sat down since and there is every confidence that this will be a “make” rather than a “break” for the company.

Jolokia is located nearly 10kms from the company’s previously successful fracturing activities at Habanero. If that success can be repeated at Jolokia, the company argues that this will demonstrate its ability to create heat exchangers at will across its tenement areas – unlocking up to 6,500MW of geothermal resources in the Geodynamics tenements and opening up a new energy province in central Australia.

That would lead to a flurry of activity. The company would return to Habanero to drill two more wells and commission the 1MW pilot plant that was delayed by the blow-out in the Habanero 3 well last year. If the pilot plant is successful, the company can then move to make an investment decision on its proposed 25MW commercial demonstration plant, for which it has federal government support to the tune of $90 million, and gain the confidence to tap the market for funds to pay for an expanded drilling program.

The commercial plant would probably not be up and running till around 2015. In the meantime, Geodynamic’s partner in the Innamincka “Deeps” project, Origin Energy, will lead its own drilling campaign to see if it can unlock energy from the Innamincka “Shallows” – geothermal heat lying in sedimentary acquifers which are considered easier to exploit. The partners believe there might be around 100MW-200MW of “shallow” resources in the immediate area. Exploiting these would provide early revenue and be a complimentary energy play to the larger project. But without the longer-term value of the “Deeps” it is uncertain if this shallow reserve could be economically exploited.

Failure at Jolokia, however, will be a devastating blow. Geodynamics is by far the best funded of Australia’s growing brigade of geothermal aspirants, with a cash balance of around $70 million, but it needs to tap the market for more money within the next six months to continue its ambitious program.

Other companies need money too. The industry – be it pursuing the deep hot dry rock reservoirs or the shallow sedimentary aquifers – would prefer not to find itself in a position where its future may be influenced by the success or failure of a single well, but because funding has been so hard to come by from government and the investment community, that is exactly where it finds itself.