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."
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
"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."
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,
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
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."