Ever heard the saying “don’t poke the bear”? It’s meant to keep people from getting into trouble by annoying an animal (or another person) to the point of anger or violence. For some reason, that’s the phrase that instantly comes to mind when considering a report from MIT that suggests we could produce vast amounts of renewable energy by blasting water into the bowels of a volcano.

According to the report, “The Future of Geothermal Energy” [PDF], just two percent of the heat some six miles below Oregon’s Newberry Volcano could provide 2,500 times as much energy as the United States currently uses. Researchers suggest that finding a way to access the high temperature rock situated below the country’s handful of volcanoes could be a way to take the American geothermal energy industry to new heights.

“We know the heat is there,” Susan Petty, president of AltaRock, told the Huffington Post. “The big issue is can we circulate enough water through the system to make it economic.”

The study outlines a technology called “Enhanced Geothermal Systems,” or EGS. The report shows that by drilling several wells to reach hot rock and connecting them to a fractured rock region that has been stimulated to let water flow through it, geothermal experts can create a heat-exchanger capable of producing large amounts of hot water or steam to run electric generators at the surface. This process is called “hydroshearing” but don’t worry, it bears almost no resemblance to it’s dirty doppelganger “hydrofracking.”

Unlike conventional fossil-fuel power plants, no fuel or chemical contaminants would be required. And unlike wind and solar systems, these enhanced geothermal plants could work night and day, offering a reliable source of electric power.

Still, there is one question on everyone’s mind: Will these enhanced geothermal systems trigger an earthquake, or even worse, a volcanic eruption? The prospect of a major quake at Newberry is very low, according to Ernie Majer, a seismologist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. No significant faults exist in the area, and it is far enough from population centers to make damages highly unlikely. The layers of volcanic ash built up over millennia hinder any shaking.

It sounds like a risky idea, but it’s already been backed by backed by the DOE, Google and others interested in boosting the geothermal energy industry. Researchers testing EGS feasibility in Oregon this summer will be required to monitor seismic activity closely, and keep residents informed about what’s going on.

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