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Cover Story

Steam Dream: Utah's Geothermal Energy Potential Page 1

Utah tempts entrepreneurs with its trifecta of renewable energy sources.

By Jim Catano
Posted // September 1,2010 -

It’s the kind of thing that’s “hiding in plain sight.” Most renewable-energy sources are so obvious and abundant, they're almost invisible. But go outside on a sunny day, and it’s easy to feel a lot of energy streaming down from the sun. Same thing on a blustery day, when the potential power is made apparent by the bending trees.

Entrepreneurs are racing to tap both wind and solar energies as fossil fuels become ever more difficult to find and the atmosphere warms from burning them. But no matter where you go, the most abundant, clean, constant, renewable energy of all is never more than just a couple of miles away ... straight down.

It would be about a 4,000-mile trip to the center of this planet, but barely scratch the surface and things already begin to heat up. In fact, many mines are limited in depth because temperatures become too high for humans to work in. At the earth’s core is a huge mass of molten iron and nickel that may reach as high as 12,000 degrees. Things cool closer to the surface, but the crust’s shifting tectonic plates also generate intense heat as they push and rub against each other.

Especially near fault lines in the western half of the continent, temperatures reach extreme levels at only a few thousand feet below the surface, and ground-water that flows down through fissures becomes superheated under intense pressure. If that geologically heated water makes its way back to the surface, it appears in hot springs, and the heat it carries with it is known as geothermal energy.

HostingGenerator.jpgYellowstone National Park is one place where hot springs abound, and many there have the extra attraction of shooting up as geysers or bubbling into beautiful mineral-encrusted pools. While those are vivid indicators of geothermal power, there have never been serious proposals to tap those resources commercially within the park’s boundaries.

But, there are places where a vast amount of geothermal heat rises fairly close to the surface and is relatively easy to reach, transform into electricity and pump into the power grid for transmission to urban centers. A high number of such hot spots exist right here in Utah—second only to Nevada in discovered geothermal resources. The central Intermountain West (including Wyoming and Colorado) is often described as the “Saudi Arabia of geothermal energy.” And Utah has the added advantage of not only having an abundant supply of geothermal, but its geothermal resources are located on land where ample moving air could drive wind farms and regular sunshine could power solar facilities.

These thrice-blessed regions are also near existing power transmission lines, allowing all three types of renewable energy to get plugged into the grid at about the same point, an advantage similar zones in Nevada don’t share. In a word, Utah’s renewable power potential is almost ideal, and at least one company is going after it in a big way.

Raser's Edge
I had no idea of Utah’s abundance of geothermal energy before meeting David West at a party. He’s the marketing vice president of the Provo-based Raser Technologies.

Besides designing advanced electric powertrains for vehicles (you may spot Raser’s red, experimental H3 Hummer on the road sporting the number “100,” meaning 100 miles per gallon), the company’s main activity is developing geothermal energy. And Raser’s flagship project is closer to coming to market than are its automotive electric motors, transmissions and controllers. In fact, West says, Raser has already been supplying Anaheim, Calif., with green energy for more than a year.

A growing slice of Disneyland’s power now comes from an unlikely place. Several miles outside the hamlet of Minersville, Utah—west of Beaver, Utah—in the middle of some of the sparsest, driest, most wind-blown terrain in the state, sits Raser’s first operational geothermal generating plant in Thermo.

It’s not some monster that can be seen for miles spewing fumes into the air. It’s a low-profile facility with structures that aren’t much taller than those of its only neighbor: Circle 4 Farms produces more than a million pigs for slaughter every year in compounds that appear in the distance across the barren landscape. The overpowering odor coming from massive manmade lagoons of hog excrement and urine are an extra reminder that no one wants to live in this place, where conditions don’t allow anything to grow more than 2 feet above the desert floor

But here’s where Raser struck gold—superheated water, really—and it’s relatively close to the surface. A little more than a mile down, Raser’s drills hit fairly hot water under high pressure that makes its way to the surface without much encouragement. It’s run through a heat exchanger (think of something akin to a car radiator) where the heat is transferred into an organic, nontoxic liquid that flashes into steam and spins a series of 50 SUV-size generating turbines.

The company claims this “binary” system, developed in conjunction with United Technologies, offers several advantages over older “flash” systems, in which turbines are driven directly by steam from the mineral-laden groundwater that’s corrosive to metal components. These smaller units are easier to build than a typical geothermal plant that uses a single large generator. One of those can take five to seven years to develop, while a modular plant like Raser’s can be brought on line in about two years.

West is enthused because advancements in generator technology during the past two years have seen advancements in performance equivalent to those in computers. Since Raser brought its first generators on line, improvements have boosted efficiency by 30 percent and output has tripled, and he anticipates five-fold increases in those numbers in the near future.

He claims that the “brown vs. green” energy competition soon will be won by geothermal without factoring in the “externalized” expenses that fossil-fuel power generation gets away without paying for, especially the environmental and human costs of pollution.

The biggest improvement, West says, is that its newer equipment can use water at temperatures of less than 250 degrees, as opposed to the 300 to 600 degrees previously needed. That means that vast geothermal resources that could not be utilized previously can now be tapped.

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Posted // September 4,2010 at 12:03

Very interesting. I'm glad that SLC has the CW because of articles like this... We all know deep in our hearts that we should be doing more to get off of petroleum and onto renewable energy. Let's get more active in supporting renewable energy... expecially in our own state. I hope the CW writes more articles like this! Most people just want to know more and what they can do.


Posted // September 3,2010 at 12:42

I really didn't understand much about geothermal energy until I read this article but Jim Catano did a great job in explaining everything. And for those naysayers that are slamming Raser, all forms of green energy developers at this point should be applauded. Every little bit helps. It is a new arena and as in any new fields, solar, wind, ocean and geothermal power will all have their trial and error phases. I'm happy a Utah company is leading the way and creating jobs for our economy.


Posted // September 3,2010 at 07:46

It's about time Utah starts "doing" some green energy and stop "watching from the sidelines" while each of us gulps down more brown power from Utah coal as we sip our "coal-fired lattes." Kudos to the writer for finding a great story and kudos to Raser. It's a good start. Keep it up. We need all the renewable we can get! I have done some research and geothermal has the lowest environmental impact of all the renewables.


Posted // September 2,2010 at 15:23

Good story, Jim. The Geysers project in Northern California deserves mention in any discusion of geothermal energy development.

The one element they couldn't control after putting 22 power plants on line by drilling 350 wells was the water! The ground water actually started to dry up, dropping the power output from serving 1.8 million customers in 1988 to 1.1 million recently. They are actually going to pump grey water from the city of Santa Rosa into the formation to try to reinvigorate the wells.


Posted // September 4,2010 at 11:51 - The grey water pumping has been very successful. Geysers is a FLASH type geothermal plant, very rare. Newer geothermal is binary, like in Utah where the resource water is immediately replaced through re-injection wells, making a closed system with no emissions and very long-term sustainability.


Posted // September 2,2010 at 09:02

Raser, the company mentioned, is buying 3MW of dirty coal power from Rocky Mountian power. They deliver about 6mw to Anaheim, so half of what they sell as renewable, is actually coal power. If you dont believe me, check out their latest earnings confernce call. Thier plant, that is delevering apx 3mw net clean energy cost in excess of $130 million to build. The tax credit they recieved, per MW, is the largest given out and certainly a waste of tax payer money. While geothermal certainly has potential, the economics that raser has shown does not make thier method of developing it viable.

The solar array going in on top of the Salt Palace is estimated to produce 2.6MW and according to the SL trib article estimated costs are $10 million.

So which is better $10 million to produce 2.6MW or $130 million to produce just over 3MW net.


Posted // September 6,2010 at 21:56 - Your right (partially), Green Energy, I didn't know that Raser is, in fact, ramping up its contracted amount of energy delivered to the city of Anaheim and that its current plant is not yet built-out to the point of being able to deliver the full amount called for in the contract. That, however, is being phased in according to Dave West of Raser who I just chatted with by phone. And while I certainly also support solar development, the numbers you provided would only be true if the earth stopped rotating so Utah faced the sun constantly, if it no longer tipped on its axis to let us always have summer intensity and there was never a cloud in the sky. The Salt Palace's numbers (while impressive) are far less than you suggest from the peak production capacity you mentioned. But let me repeat...GO SOLAR. If Germany, which is at the latitude of Ontario, Canada, can be a world leader in solar development, we sure as hell can do more, too. Btw, I'd spoken to Mayor Corroon while researching this article (unfortunately, there wasn't room to include his comments), but he is very pro-renewables. In addition to pushing the Salt Palace solar project, he also mentioned that two county community rec centers are in the process of getting heat from ground source heat pumps...the non-water "geothermal" source that only requires drilling to a couple hundred feet.


Posted // September 3,2010 at 21:05 - Given the critical need for clean energy, Utah should aggressively develop its geothermal resources. I have looked into Raser and I applaud what they are trying to do. Applying "distributed generation" to geothermal is a novel and significant undertaking that could yield more dependable, lower cost energy as the technology matures. Geothermal plays an key role in our country's renewable energy plan. Due to the intermittent nature of wind and solar, actual power generated is usually only about 24%-30% of the total capacity on average. The 2.6 MW total capacity at the Salt Palace will likely deliver a little over a half a megawatt, increasing the Cost/MW by 3 to 4 times. Geothermal delivers 24/7 and can help displace coal... the ultimate objective. Even the prototype plant by Raser produces well over 65% of its total capacity as I read it. Not bad for a first generation technology. I often work with the University of Utah's EGI (Energy and Geoscience Institute) and I am very pleased to see geothermal finally getting some attention.