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The successful development of a geothermal electric power generation facility relies on (1) the identification of sufficiently high temperatures at an economically viable depth and (2) the existence of or potential to create and maintain a permeable zone (permeability >10-14 m2) of sufficient size to allow efficient long-term extraction of heat from the reservoir host rock. If both occur at depth under the Columbia Plateau, development of geothermal resources there has the potential to expand both the magnitude and spatial extent of geothermal energy production. However, a number of scientific and technical issues must be resolved in order to evaluate the likelihood that the Columbia River Basalts, or deeper geologic units under the Columbia Plateau, are viable geothermal targets.
Recent research has demonstrated that heat flow beneath the Columbia Plateau Regional Aquifer System may be higher than previously measured in relatively shallow (<600 m depth) wells, indicating that sufficient temperatures for electricity generation occur at depths 5 km. The remaining consideration is evaluating the likelihood that naturally high permeability exists, or that it is possible to replicate the high average permeability (approximately 10-14 to 10-12 m2) characteristic of natural hydrothermal reservoirs. From a hydraulic perspective, Columbia River Basalts are typically divided into dense, impermeable flow interiors and interflow zones comprising the top of one flow, the bottom of the overlying flow, and any sedimentary interbed. Interflow zones are highly variable in texture but, at depths <600 m, some of them form highly permeable regional aquifers with connectivity over many tens of kilometers. Below depths of ~600 m, permeability reduction occurs in many interflow zones, caused by the formation of low-temperature hydrothermal alteration minerals (corresponding to temperatures above ~35 °C). However, some high permeability (>10-14 m2) interflows are documented at depths up to ~1,400 m. If the elevated permeability in these zones persists to greater depths, they may provide natural permeability of sufficient magnitude to allow their exploitation as conventional geothermal reservoirs. Alternatively, if the permeability in these interflow zones is less than 10-14 m2 at depth, it may be possible to use hydraulic and thermal stimulation to enhance the permeability of both the interflow zones and the natural jointing within the low-permeability interior portions of individual basalt flows in order to develop Enhanced/Engineered Geothermal System (EGS) reservoirs. The key challenge for an improved Columbia Plateau geothermal assessment is acquiring and interpreting comprehensive field data that can provide quantitative constraints on the recovery of heat from the Columbia River Basalts at depths greater than those currently tested by deep boreholes.