Ocean City officials yesterday urged a Maryland legislative committee to help the resort develop a potentially unlimited but untapped energy resource - reservoirs of hot water believed lying a mile below the earth's surface from New Jersey to Georgia.
If the hot water is there, as future drilling will determine, Ocean City could be expanded into a wintertime spa with heated pools and the state's Eastern Shore would have new energy supplies for its poultry, seafood and agricultural industries, officials say.
"There's plenty of water down there," Ocean City Mayor Harry Kelley testified before the Senate Economic Affairs Committee. "With the energy crunch, this could be a plus for us. It's worth a shot."
Preliminary scientific studies by the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and Johns Hopkins University have concluded that Ocean City is a prime site among eight Atlantic Coast sites where hot water is believed to lie cradled far underground.
"We don't have our hands on it yet," said David B. Lombard of the federal Department of Energy's geothermal division, "but there is a great deal of confidence by highly respected people that the water's down there."
Within two months, the federal agency will begin exploratory drillings in 40 sites - possibly at Ocean City and other locations on the Delmarva Peninsula - to measure heat levels 1,000 feet below the earth's surface.
By the end of the summer, the agency expects to select the most promising two or three locations for deep test well, each of which will extend about a mile down allowing thorough studies of any hot water resource.
It is this step that particularly interests the Ocean City officials. "We have a chance to be first," Kelley urged the Senate committee.
The legislation proposed by Senate President Steny H. Hoyer (D-Prince George's) would give the State Department of Natural Resources authority to regulate exploration and application of geothermal supplies in Maryland.
Kelley also said he will propose to his City Council next week that Ocean City make available to the federal government several sites for test drillings.
According to unverified records, an exploratory oil well drilled in 1946 in Ocean City discovered, rather than oil, the existence of water heated to 217 degrees Fahrenheit 7,700 feet down.
The federal government began promoting development of geothermal energy on the East Coast during the 1970s when the energy shortage generated interest in alternatives to fossil fuels.
According to geologic studies, the potential resource results from underground water seepage that is heated by the natural radioactivity of these deep rock sediments.
Test drillings will determine the quality and guantity of the geothermal supply and whether it can be recovered economically.
Lombard said it believed that the water available in the Atlantic Coast zones is not hot enough to produce electricity. However, it could be used for heating future buildings located near wells, operating air conditioning and refrigeration systems and processing poultry and seafood.
Under the best of circumstances, the geothermal energy could be competitive with other energy sources, he added.
Among the current geothermal applications, geothermally heated water provides power for communities in Iceland and steam for an electrical plant north of San Francisco. It also is used to such communities as Boise, Idaho.
The Department of Energy also shortly will announce the awarding of a contract for a multimillion dollar electrical power plant powered by geothermally heated water "somewhere west of the Rockies," Lombard said.
Ocean City's dreams of a hot water spa are not unfounded, he added. "If the resource is there and it can be produced economically, there is no fundamental reason why they couldn't do this," Lombard said.