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Geothermal prospectors seek energy in Idaho, the West

Nov 25, 2006 The Associated Press

MALTA, Idaho - Mormon ranchers in Idaho's Raft River Valley who hit gushers of hot water while drilling irrigation wells in the 1950s soon learned the corrosive, 300-degree liquid killed their crops.

Their sons and daughters who remain in this wind-washed country near the Utah border, where antelope outnumber humans, remember the steaming ponds were good for at least something: boiling farm animals.

"The locals would bring their chickens and pigs and scald the hair and feathers off them," recalls Paul Barnes, a Malta rancher. "When I was a kid, we actually cooked pinion nuts we gathered in the hills."

Producing electricity

Barnes now returns to the geothermal area daily - not to roast pinions, but as a roughneck on a drilling crew boring 6,000 feet into the earth. Come next October, his employer, U.S. Geothermal, expects to begin producing electricity from a hot-water-fired power plant. Utility Idaho Power Co. has agreed to buy enough electricity to light 7,500 homes.

It's no coincidence U.S. Geothermal, which in August won $34 million in financing from investment bankers at Goldman Sachs in New York, is now prospecting for geothermal energy on Idaho's high desert. Across the West, some 60 new geothermal projects are in the works, in addition to 61 existing sites in five states.

And for the first time since 1978, federal agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey are taking stock of the region's geothermal resources - on marching orders from a Congress trying to bolster America's energy independence.

"The public and the government all want renewable energy fast," Jack Peterson, who heads renewable energy projects in the West for the Bureau of Land Management, told The Associated Press. "It's a wake-up call. We're racing to get it done."

If all the projects were to be built, it would double U.S. installed geothermal power production to 5,000 megawatts - enough to power 3.8 million homes. The Western Governors Association estimated in June that 13,000 megawatts of electricity could be generated by geothermal sources "within a reasonable time frame."

Energy standards

In addition, more than 20 states have passed renewable energy standards, including Nevada, where 15 percent of electricity by 2013 must come from sources such as wind and geothermal. California in September enacted a greenhouse gas emissions law and demanded utilities produce a fifth of power from renewables by 2020.

"We are seeing a geothermal power renaissance in the United States," said Karl Gawell, director of the Geothermal Energy Association lobbying group in Washington, D.C.

Gawell is now pushing Congress to restore $23 million for U.S. Department of Energy geothermal research programs and to extend renewable energy production tax credits to make startups like U.S. Geothermal more attractive to investors.

U.S. Geothermal wasn't the first to prospect for hot water in the southern Idaho desert.

Between 1970 and 1982, the Department of Energy spent some $40 million to develop an experimental, five-megawatt power plant aimed at demonstrating the feasibility of generating electricity from moderately hot water - as opposed to steam that's been successfully harnessed at giant projects such as The Geysers in California since the 1960s.

The DOE's plant south of Malta was completed in July 1980, only to be mothballed two years later.

By 2002, when U.S. Geothermal secured eight square miles of energy-development and water rights here, the site was an industrial ghost town. DOE equipment had been carted away or junked; shotgun holes were blasted in remaining structures.

Four years later, however, a new power plant is going in, courtesy of Israeli-based Ormat Technologies. Once it's complete, heat from geothermal water pumped in from wells through miles of pipe will vaporize isobutane in separate tanks to crank electricity-producing turbines. Spent water gets re-injected into the geothermal aquifer.

It's clean, producing virtually no greenhouse gases, said Daniel Kunz, U.S. Geothermal's president and a former mining executive.

"It's never going to be the be-all, end-all solution to our energy needs," Kunz said. "But to the extent we can help generate 20 percent of the country's power from clean power, it's a very important number."

In the 1980s, it wasn't just the Department of Energy that abandoned geothermal energy projects like Raft River when the Middle East oil crisis subsided and gas-station lines evaporated.

A risky venture

Huge energy companies such as Chevron Corp. fled exploration ventures in some of the West's remotest regions when the prospect of producing geothermal power from largely undocumented resources was deemed too risky, said Brian Fairbank, president of Vancouver, Canada-based Nevada Geothermal Power, Inc.

Optimistic that hunger for geothermal energy would eventually re-emerge, Fairbank spent the 1990s scouring the Rocky Mountain West for sites where development would be most feasible.

Today, his company is touting a proposed $104 million geothermal power plant above a boiling aquifer north of Reno. He's signed a pact with Nevada Power to sell up to 35 megawatts of electricity, a sign the latest generation of geothermal wildcatters will benefit as anxiety over the country's energy future persists.

"Last fall, you were hearing about power shortages," Fairbank said from his British Columbia offices. "This fall, you're hearing about ice caps melting and oil running out. This will be pretty strong for the next few years, anyway."



Updated: 2016/06/30

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