National Competition Names University of Rochester for Geothermal Innovation

July 3, 2013

Photo of students

This year's winner in the National Geothermal Student Competition is the University of Rochester, New York. Pictured here are student team members Talor Walsh, Leah Sabbeth, and team leader David Brink-Roby. Kidus Alemayehu is not pictured.

The winning team in this year's National Geothermal Student Competition – the Energy Department's intercollegiate contest that challenges undergraduate and graduate students to explore cutting-edge technologies by crafting a business plan to develop a geothermal enterprise – comes from New York's University of Rochester.  While geothermal energy development predominantly occurs in the western United States, the student team from New York proposes an enterprise in a surprising location: the coal fields of Pennsylvania. In fact, Rochester’s business plan leverages clean, baseload geothermal energy to mitigate a superfund site with novel technology.

Rochester's plan, referred to as "a new era in agile geothermal energy production," taps the heat generated by underground coal fires – naturally occurring smoldering deposits, often found in coal mines. Of the 200 coal fires burning nationwide, the Rochester study targeted Pennsylvania, where 45 of these fires continue to burn in the subsurface. Because of the heat generated by these fires, heat extraction can occur closer to the surface than in conventional geothermal drilling, bringing down the upfront costs of power plant development. Electricity is then generated by using the heat from these underground fires to boil geothermal fluid into steam. Three significant benefits arise from this win-win plan:

  • low-cost, carbon-negative energy production from lost resources
  • long-term alternative energy credits to meet state renewable energy requirements
  • environmentally aware branding for on-site coal companies   

Four finalist teams presented their findings at the National Geothermal Summit hosted by the Geothermal Energy Association in Reno, Nevada June 26-27, 2013. The Oregon Institute of Technology, University of South Dakota, and California Polytechnic University, Pomona also presented innovative geothermal business plans to industry leaders at the event, where a team of judges ranked their proposals based on written and oral presentations.

The competition, now in its third year, emphasizes the Administration's pledge to accelerate science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education by exploring solutions and technologies that could lead to breakthroughs in geothermal energy development and reduce cost and risks. The contest also provides students invaluable, hands-on experience in the geothermal sector. This year, interdisciplinary student teams focused on developing a geothermal enterprise that could advance this clean energy in their home states. The Energy Department's Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education manages the annual event.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Geothermal Technologies Office invests in clean energy technologies that strengthen the economy, protect the environment, and reduce America's dependence on foreign oil through geothermal solutions.