Irish oil and gas explorer Providence Resources is evaluating whether it can generate electricity from billions of barrels of boiling water under the sea bed. The green energy project would be revolutionary for the Irish energy sector – the first large scale example of its type here, with Ireland well behind on meeting its carbon emissions targets. The boiling water is located 3,000 metres below the sea bed, at a location where it gets heated by its proximity to the earth’s crust. The project would be a type of “geothermal” energy – energy derived from the heat under the surface of the planet. A number of significant players in the geothermal energy sector have expressed an interest in the idea and are due to travel to Ireland next month to discuss how it could be progressed beyond the research stage. The boiling water is located in an area of the Porcupine Basin off the south west coast of Ireland. Providence Resources, run by Tony O’Reilly jr, was looking for oil there in an area known as Dunquin North, but found only residual amounts. However the presence of the boiling water presents the opportunity to generate energy in a different manner. One option is to install a so-called “heat exchanger” on the sea bed. The boiling water would be pumped up to the sea bed, and then into the exchanger. Once there, the heat in the water would cause a separate fluid in the heat exchanger to expand. That expansion would power a turbine, generating the electricity to be sent back to shore. The water would then be pumped down again into the reservoir from which it came – meaning the electricity would be renewable. The project is an example of how oil and gas companies have the potential to diversify into renewable areas, with the boiling water having been discovered by oil and gas exploration techniques. The project has a long way to go before becoming a reality however, given that it is at the research stage. The company would probably need to bring in a partner to get the project up and running on a commercial basis. John O’Sullivan, Providence’s technical director, said in a social media post that the boiling water is about 275km from a grid connection in the Shannon estuary on the west coast. He said the company was trying to see how it could extract the energy in a way that would mean it wasn’t intermittent – like for example wind energy where the power generated depends on the wind. “I think sometimes these are the alternative and maybe difficult types of questions which we need to challenge ourselves with,” the post said. Nearby, at an area called Dunquin South, Providence is set to drill a well alongside partners ENI, Repsol and Sosina. It plans a site survey for the prospect next year, with the well potentially coming the year after in 2020. But for most observers in the market the key Providence project is off the Cork coast at a prospect known as Barryroe. After a years-long, torturous process, the company has finally found a partner to help it try and get oil out of the ground there. There is oil at the prospect, but the question is whether it can be extracted in a commercial fashion. The partner is a Chinese consortium which has committed to drilling as many as seven wells at the project. The project has recently run into a delay however, after An Taisce challenged planning permission Providence got for a site survey at Barryroe. An Taisce, an environmental charity which gets State funding, said it wanted a judicial review of the way in which Providence received the permission. Providence said it would apply for fresh permission for the survey early in 2019, with the start of drilling set to be pushed back to the third quarter of the year rather than the second, assuming all went as planned. Earlier this year Sean Canney, the minister of state in charge of natural resources, indicated the Government would block efforts by opposition politicians to ban new exploration licences. He said the bill wouldn’t reduce current oil and gas usage, and make us reliant on imports for future oil or gas needs. With technology the way it is, those needs are likely to remain substantial for some time.
But if one day we manage to live in an oil-and-gas-free world, Providence’s geothermal project shows how oil and gas explorers might be able to reinvent themselves.