Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Guest article: Minewater Geothermal on the Keweenaw Peninsula

By Laura Smyth*

CALUMET -- I’ve always dreamed of making my house energy self-sufficient -- maybe a windmill could be mounted where that old TV antenna anachronistically sits; maybe we could get a wood stove for the living room, some solar panels on the roof? I even occasionally allow myself to fantasize that our entire peninsula could be energy independent with no need for a larger electrical grid. What an economic boon that would be to my family and my neighbors I think, wistfully. Imagine never paying an electric or heating bill again.

If that all sounds a little pie-in-the-sky, consider the fact that we live above a valuable resource that could make at least some of it possible. I’m not talking about copper -- I’m talking about water and the vast underground network of abandoned mines. One legacy of copper mining in the Keweenaw was boom and bust economics. The other could be renewable energy and sustained economic development through new technology.

What is minewater geothermal? In a nutshell, the holes in the ground that were left behind by decades of mining have, after decades of disuse, filled with water and the earth’s heat has warmed that water enough to make it useful in a heat-exchange system. Pump the water up, extract the heat, pump the slightly cooled water back to be reheated by the earth. Any engineers reading this are now slapping their foreheads at my simplistic description, but this is not a technological article.

On December 12, 2013, a group of student researchers from Michigan Technological University presented their report on "Exploring the Social Feasibility of Minewater Geothermal in Calumet." The students, led by Prof. Richelle Winkler, had spent their Fall semester devising and implementing a study to aid the Calumet community in the process of deciding whether and how we might best use this untapped resource.

Michigan Tech Professor Richelle Winkler (in foreground seated at computer) and several of her student researchers are pictured here during their Dec. 12, 2013, presentation on minewater geothermal at CLK Commons in Calumet. (Photo © and courtesy Laura Smyth)

You can access their full report as well as a report summary here so I won’t go into great detail about their findings in this article. Let me just say they did a great job -- and the community, in particular those of us at Main Street Calumet who helped coordinate this project with Prof. Winkler, greatly appreciate their work.

As part of their study, the students devised a survey to gauge community interest in and concerns about the idea of geothermal energy production from minewater. Among the questions on the survey, I think the most telling was this: "Do you believe that Calumet (or maybe the Keweenaw Peninsula more broadly) is capable and ready to be an innovator or leading community for sustainable energy sources?"

That’s really what it comes to in the end: do you believe we can do this? The technology is proven and even in use already on the Keweenaw. While every site and every situation is unique, one model that the students looked at is the Keweenaw Research Center. Headed by Michigan Tech’s Jay Meldrum, the Keweenaw Research Center, located near the Houghton County Airport, is a successful example of minewater geothermal in action. Another example of the increasing commercial potential of this technology is Keweenaw Geothermal Research Group LLC (KGRG), a privately owned company that is in the initial phases of harnessing minewater geothermal as an energy source.  

These are exciting times, but bringing minewater geothermal to the Keweenaw Peninsula on a larger scale won’t be simple and it won’t be immediate. One challenge facing proponents of minewater geothermal is funding for the initial development; another is politics. With the most promising mine shafts located on both municipal and private property there are concerns about costs, ownership, and how the benefits of resource development will be shared.

But we have the know-how. Do we have the will power? Can we harness our different and too often competing interests and outlooks in common cause? We can have both a clean environment and a strong economy, and we can realize benefits for our youth from the hard work and sacrifice of our elders.

(For more information on the work of Main Street Calumet and ways you can get involved visit www.mainstreetcalumet.org.)

* Guest author Laura Smyth is a writer and founding member of Keweenaw Writers Workshop. She is also a graphic designer and owner of Smythtype Design in Calumet, Michigan. (Inset photo: Laura Smyth in her Smythtype Design office. Keweenaw Now file photo.)

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