In just the past 24 hours there were between 250 and 270 earthquakes at Kilauea’s summit, with four explosions on Saturday sending ash to altitudes as high as 12,000-15,000 feet, said Stovall and National Weather Service meteorologist John Bravender.
The scale of the eruption and lava flow is so immense that satellites have been photographing it from above. First up, Digg shows an incredibly detailed shot from the European Space Agency's Earth Observation satellite, showing the bright flows sticking out against the lush green of the island:
And NASA Earth Observatory got in on the action with this stunning night shot of the lava flows:
Satellites aren't the only ones capturing cool photos - this view from the Gemini Observatory shows the "glow from an extensive region of fissures over the course of a single night":
However, more worrying for now is that fact that the lava crossed onto the Puna Geothermal Venture (PGV) Saturday evening local time, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, having destroyed dozens of nearby houses in the past few days.
The plant's wells run a mile deep in some areas.
Tom Travis from Hawaii Emergency Management told CBS News that in the worst-case scenario, there would be "a steam release, many chemicals, but primarily hydrogen sulphide, a very deadly gas".
“The flow from fissures 21 and 7 was widening and advancing,” Janet Snyder, a spokeswoman for the County of Hawaii, said in an email on the position of lava heading northeast toward PGV at 12:30 p.m. (6:00 p.m. ET)
Hawaii Governor David Ige has said the wells are stable.
Since Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano began a once-in-a-century-scale eruption May 3, authorities have shutdown the plant, removed 60,000 gallons of flammable liquid and deactivated wells that tap into steam and gas deep in the Earth’s core.
But, as Reuters reports, lava has never engulfed a geothermal plant anywhere in the world and the potential threat is untested, according to the head of the state’s emergency management agency.
Residents have complained of health hazards from emissions from the plant since it went online in 1989 and PGV has been the target of lawsuits challenging its location on the flank of one of the world’s most active volcanoes.
The Israeli-owned 38 megawatt plant typically provides around 25 percent of electricity on the Big Island, according to local power utility Hawaii Electric Light.
Operator Ormat Technologies last week said there was no above-ground damage to the plant but it would have to wait until the situation stabilized to assess the impact of earthquakes and subterranean lava flows on the wells.
However, as we detailed previously, there is a long-running debate about whether PGV is fracking. The debate may be a matter of terminology, because in the geothermal process, as hawaiifracking.com reports, “…the drilling and the injection of cold water into hot rocks used in geothermal energy plants does fracture the rocks, which can induce earthquakes and through contamination of the atmosphere and water tables can affect our health and safety.”
Whether deep injection of fluid aims to capture oil, gas, or heat (geothermal), the beginning stage of the process is the same.
Earthquakes induced by this water-injection could obviously trigger a volcano.
For example, here is an alarming article about a geothermal project in Switzerland. Swissinfo.ch, December 10, 2009:
“The authorities in canton Basel City say they will cancel a geothermal energy project, which three years ago caused minor tremors that damaged many buildings.”
“A risk analysis study published on Thursday found that the danger of setting off more earthquakes was too great if drilling at the site resumed.”
“The project was put on hold three years ago after thousands of claims for damage were filed with insurers. Total costs for the damage were around SFr9 million ($8.78 million).”
“The study, commissioned by the canton, concluded that Basel was ‘unfavourable’ for geothermal power generation.”
“It said the resumption of Deep Heat Mining project and its operation over a 30-year period could set off around 200 tremors with a strength of up to 4.5 on the Richter Scale – in 2006, the quakes were about 3.4.”
“This would result in damages up to SFr40 million.”
“The Basel facility drilled five kilometres into the earth. The borehole was designed to be injected with water to capture the extreme heat. Back at the surface, the hot water – at a temperature of around 160° Celsius – would run a steam turbine coupled with a generator.”
This Swiss article outlines the risks, and also confirms that deep water-injection is used in the geothermal process—which can and does trigger earthquakes.
Ormat is no stranger to scandals. At blog.heartland.org, H Sterling Burnett writes (4/1/15):
"One scandal that could haunt [Harry] Reid for his remaining time in the Senate (and possibly beyond) was reported on recently in the Washington Free Beacon and Courthouse News. It seems the Reid helped the green energy company, Ormat Technologies, a firm that owns and manages geothermal plants in California and Hawaii, secure nearly $136 million in economic stimulus funding from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.”
“Two former employees are suing the firm, claiming Ormat executives defrauded the United States of more than $130 million by reporting false information about two projects to get government grants, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.”
“Reid’s ties to Ormat are deep. The company runs geothermal plants in Nevada and Reid has been a big booster of the company in D.C. As reported in the Free Beacon, ‘Reid bragged about securing Ormat a $350 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy (DOE) and took credit for expanding the Treasury program that the former employees say illicitly provided Ormat with millions more in taxpayer funds’.”
“It is also worth noting that Ormat’s DOE award came a year after investors sued the company for allegedly inflating its stock price through ‘fraudulent accounting and overstated financial results.’ Ormat settled the allegations in 2012 for $3.1 million.”
Ormat potentially faces a much larger scandal now: A massive volcanic eruption on the Island of Hawaii.