Rock & A Hard Place: Cleantech Startup Suspends Drilling

Backed by over $30 million in venture capital and a $6.25 million DoE grant, AltaRock Energy has been drilling in Northern California geysers to establish pathways to hot rock, which it wants to inject with water to capture heat that would generate electricity.

Yesterday, AltaRock suspended the project, citing “physical difficulties” in the drilling of its first well, “resulting from geologic anomalies particular to the formation underlying this well location.” It claims to have not given up, instead saying that it’s evaluating other locations for drilling with a reminder that it’s filed 20 patents.

The project was already behind schedule, and it’s also still being reviewed by the DOE and the Department of the Interior to see how likely it is that fracturing hot rock with high-pressure water will induce earthquakes that people will notice.

That review followed a New York Times story in June, which pointed out that a similar project in Basel, Switzerland, in 2006 set off a series of earthquakes, one measuring 3.4, that lasted for about a year.

AltaRock claims that its project is safe — that the geology of the Geysers is different from Switzerland’s, and that it will avoid drilling into major earthquake faults.

Still, the only venture investor who returned calls seeking comment on AltaRock was Vulcan Capital, whose spokesman David Postman basically issued a no comment (Vulcan leaves these situations…). AltaRock itself isn’t talking.

Geothermal energy has a lot of potential to generate clean energy — up to 10 percent of what’s required in the U.S. within 50 years, according to an estimate by MIT.

But AltaRock shows how treacherous and expensive some of these clean tech projects are going to be, once we get past the hype and into the hard work of making them happen.

AltaRock shareholders include Advanced Technology Ventures, Kleiner Perkins, Khosla Ventures, GreatPoint Ventures and Vulcan Capital.