CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The largest geothermal hot spot in the eastern United States can be found deep beneath the mountains of eastern West Virginia, according to research produced by Southern Methodist University's Geothermal Laboratory.
SMU researchers estimate that the 7,200-square-mile area, most of it underlying Tucker, Pocahontas, Greenbrier and Randolph counties, is capable of producing more electricity from geothermal sources than is now being produced in the state by coal-fired generators.
"The temperatures are high enough to make this the most attractive area for geothermal energy development in the eastern one-third of the country," according to an abstract of the research.
SMU's discovery comes from a follow-up survey of a 2004 effort by the Texas institution to map North America's geothermal resources. During the earlier mapping effort, only four West Virginia data points were used. The new research incorporates temperature data recorded by state oil, gas and water well drillers to add 1,455 additional thermal data points.
"They used bottom hole temperatures, which oil and gas companies typically measure when they reach the bottoms of the wells they are drilling," said State Geologist Michael Hohn, who also serves as director of the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey.
Hohn said he was surprised by the SMU discovery, given the absence of volcanic or other significant tectonic activity in the state.
"When you think of geothermal energy, you think of a place like Iceland," he said. "There was no strong evidence of this anomaly being here. We're not exactly sitting on top of Old Faithful here, but what we've been learning is rather exciting."
According to the SMU study, temperatures of 300 degrees -- hot enough for commercial geothermal power production -- are found starting at depths of 4.5 kilometers, or about 15,000 feet in West Virginia's geothermal zone.
"That's at or beyond the limits of the deeper wells that are now being drilled," Hohn said. To tap into the source, engineers will have to develop new techniques to deal with pressures and temperatures encountered at such depths, he said.