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NREL Explores Geothermal Energy Possibilities

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“Let’s look to the past and learn so we can figure out what we need to do for the future,” said Dr. Monica Mayer, a tribal councilwoman for the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (MHA) Nation, at a Nov. 5, 2022, panel discussion focused on geothermal energy possibilities for the tribal nation.

That statement weighs heavy in an area where past injustices are too numerous to list. These injustices include the loss of nearly all tribal lands, partially for the sake of what was then called “energy progress” when the area was flooded in the 1950s from the creation of the Garrison Dam.

“The major transition in energy we are facing is a chance to correct the mistakes of the past,” said panelist Brian Tande, dean of the College of Engineering and Mines at the University of North Dakota. “We make better decisions when we involve more people with diverse perspectives.”

Students from the University of North Dakota (UND) and Reykjavik University—team “UND Geothermal Vision”—are attempting to do just that. The second-place winners of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) 2022 Geothermal Collegiate Competition (GCC) hosted the November 2022 event to bring their geothermal ideas to the community, seeking input and dialogue.

Six students pose with their geothermal model and their second-place certificate for the Geothermal Collegiate Competition.
Students from the University of North Dakota and Reykjavik University posed with their geothermal model at their community engagement event in New Town, North Dakota, on Nov. 5, 2022. Pictured (from left to right): Jerjes Porlles, Moones Alamooti, Shane Namie, Nnaemeka Ngobidi, Jessica Eagle-Bluestone, and Chioma Onwumelu. Team members not pictured: Nicholas Fry, Ali Alinezhad, Carter Johnson, Matthew Villante, and faculty advisor William Gosnold.
“What we go to in the future is exactly what you are doing today,” Dr. Mayer said to the students. “You come out to the community, you talk to the people, you tell them what your ideas are, you let them know how you are going to be respectful of culture, tradition, way of life, and help us keep our land, air, and water clean and not take advantage of us. That is called meaningful tribal consultation.”

The team came in second place for their design of a combined heat and power geothermal system for the city of New Town, North Dakota, which is located on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. The team used extensive preexisting geological information from oil and gas exploration in the area to design a system that could heat and power an entire district, including the possibility for greenhouses and aquaculture efforts.

Propane, which can rise in cost exponentially during the cold winters, is the current heating source for the town of nearly 3,000 people. There are no natural gas utilities in the service area, despite the recent increase in extraction of shale gas across the local Williston Basin. These economic pressures have led to a greater desire in the community to switch fuel sources.

“We want to thank the MHA Nation,” said Jessica Eagle-Bluestone, a recent graduate of UND with a master’s in energy systems engineering and one of the 17,107 enrolled members of the MHA Nation. “We went through the tribal council to request the proper resolutions for different aspects of the project; getting the tribe’s consent and support was pivotal.”

An “Energy Nation”
Image of dozens of solar panels.
A solar panel array at the MHA Interpretive Center in New Town, North Dakota.
In North Dakota, approximately 25% of the oil and gas produced now comes from the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, yet the self-proclaimed “Energy Nation” is always seeking ways to further protect their land, water, air, and people—especially through renewables.

“We are very open-minded at the MHA Nation. We have always been like that, for more than 200 years since Lewis and Clark came here,” Dr. Mayer said. “Everybody likes to follow our lead. If we pour ourselves into energy and renewables, everyone else will too.”

The tribe started with solar, installing a large array at the MHA Interpretive Center. The solar array, located in New Town where the winter temperatures are frequently in the single digits or below, helped the museum move from owing hundreds of dollars a month to receiving credits for generating excess energy.

Now the tribe is interested in expanding their renewable energy generation to include geothermal.

A woman stands in front of a crowd, speaking into a microphone during a panel discussion.
Chioma Onwumelu, a Ph.D. candidate in geology at UND, spoke to the community at the Nov. 5 event.
“My favorite part of the GCC was the community engagement component,” Eagle-Bluestone said. “This is my community, and I was able to introduce a lot of the local leaders and the general population to a resource that they didn’t realize was something we could utilize. Geothermal would be a good transitional energy resource to ensure the tribe can remain an energy tribe well after oil and gas, and it would provide additional industry to the area.”

Community Event
“The Geothermal Collegiate Competition is an interdisciplinary challenge that brings together students from various fields to achieve a common geothermal goal. There’s a satisfaction that comes with the completion of each phase of the project. I am proud to have been part of the UND team.” – Nnaemeka Ngobidi, Ph.D. student in geology at UND

“To prospective students: Don’t be scared of the challenges that come with working as a team. Doing so will allow you to realize your full potential and help your team grow in wisdom and strength.” – Moones Alamooti, Ph.D. student in geophysics and master’s student in energy engineering at UND

The student team partnered with the MHA Nation to hold the community event at the Northern Lights Wellness Center, centering the various talks and panels around geothermal energy and tribal energy independence.

Team members gave presentations on geothermal basics and their competition entry for high school students and the New Town community. The DOE Geothermal Technologies Office sponsored the event, with the intent of furthering discussion of geothermal energy as a clean, renewable resource in areas that can benefit most.

The UND Geothermal Vision team also built a model showcasing various geothermal uses and technologies, gifting it to the MHA Nation and presenting them with a certificate of appreciation for their support during the project. More than 100 community members and UND students attended the event.

The Geothermal Collegiate Competition and Team UND Geothermal Vision
The DOE Geothermal Collegiate Competition, administered by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, is designed to inspire students to consider new career opportunities, learn geothermal industry-relevant skills, and connect students to their communities.

“Everything I learned about geothermal I learned through three years of the Geothermal Collegiate Competition.” –Jerjes Porlles, Ph.D. candidate in energy engineering at UND
As part of the 2022 competition, students assumed the role of project developers, working with communities across the United States to identify local energy challenges and explore geothermal energy solutions.

“This project takes you outside your comfort zone, outside your classroom work, and applies it,” said Shane Namie, a Ph.D. candidate in the UND geological engineering department.

The UND Geothermal Vision team has participated in the GCC since 2019, achieving two first-place wins in addition to their second-place prize this year. They attribute their success to teamwork, sometimes coordinated across continents, as well as their willingness to study areas outside their traditional academic focuses.

“Working with a diverse team like our team, from different backgrounds, brings up creativity and always pushes the project forward,” said Chioma Onwumelu, a Ph.D. candidate in geology at UND.

“We are ready to win the next competition,” said Jerjes Porlles, a Ph.D. candidate in energy engineering at UND. “Everything I learned about geothermal I learned through three years of the Geothermal Collegiate Competition.”

Six students pose with a certificate in front of a University of North Dakota logo backdrop.
From left to right: Moones Alamooti, Nnaemeka Ngobidi, Chioma Onwumelu, Shane Namie, Jessica Eagle-Bluestone, and Jerjes Porlles from team UND Geothermal Vision posed with their GCC certificate.
Just as the team is looking ahead to the next GCC cycle, the leaders of the MHA Nation are already planning how to put more renewables into practice, including geothermal.

“My electricity bill for this community center is $6,000–$8,000 a month; it is just a nightmare,” Dr. Mayer said. “I believe the future for all of us in the MHA Nation, as we utilize our oil and gas revenues, is to build net-zero everything. We need to utilize all our renewables—geothermal, solar, wind—to advance the future so that our children won’t have to pay $8,000 a month in electrical bills. They will be getting credits.”

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