The American West is peppered with sites where geothermal-generating potential for Raser’s technology has already been identified. Many holes drilled while exploring for oil and natural gas were capped when “pesky” hot water was found instead, and Raser is securing leases on such sites for power-generating projects under development in Nevada, New Mexico, and Oregon, as well as in Indonesia.
I saw Raser’s Utah geothermal plant up close during a company-sponsored tour. On the bus ride down, my seatmate was state Sen. Peter Knudson, R-Brigham City, the current majority assistant whip and a former Senate majority leader. Our time together afforded me the additional benefit of realizing that, despite much of what often comes out of the Republican-dominated Legislature, there are progressive thinkers on both sides of the aisle. The affable orthodontist informed me that the mood of Utah’s lawmakers is changing toward renewable energy because they’re realizing that “one source can’t do it all.”
Knudson believes Utah’s current predilection for fossil-fuel extraction is not necessarily tied to party affiliation but more closely reflects economics, both local and statewide. The coal and oil and gas industries in eastern Utah make its legislators in both parties leery about offering tax credits to renewable industries, especially if it would mean increased taxes on fossil-fuel extraction and use. Besides, legislation that imposes requirements for renewable-energy use is perceived to run counter to the free-market and anti-environmental protection ideology of many legislators.
Renewable-energy targets in Utah are now low compared with those of neighboring states that have minimum Renewable Portfolio Standards mandating that a certain portion of energy come from those sources. Utah’s targets are only voluntary. Nevertheless, Knudson anticipates a “strong interest” in the Legislature for renewable energy and one that will grow as awareness increases.
Former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and soon-to-be former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett had previously visited the site as did then Lieutenant Governor Gary Herbert. All expressed their support for geothermal development. Also, according to geologist Joe Moore of the University of Utah’s Earth Geoscience Institute (EGI), the leadership of U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in passing and extending the Production Tax Credit, has been a “significant boon to geothermal development nationally.”
When we got to Raser’s site, the serenity was impressive, with a constant whir from the generators. And I learned that this facility, once fully operational, will need a staff of only a few maintenance and security people to operate around the clock.
According to Raser’s read of industry data, solar generators can only power the grid on sunny days (about 25 percent of the time) and wind farms produce electricity only when the wind blows (typically about one-third of the day). But geothermal plants operate at base load all the time and at a stable rate, without suffering from fluctuations in weather conditions or periods of darkness.
There isn’t even much waste. After the hot water provides heat to spin the turbines, it’s piped back into the ground through a different hole, where it flows back down to be reheated far below the surface. Only during hot weather is a cooling tower needed that evaporates a small amount of water into the atmosphere to keep the temperature difference between the air and the ground water ideal for peak generator efficiency.
Raser executive vice president Dick Clayton says the plant is designed to produce about 10,000 kilowatts of electricity. (At any given time, the typical American home consumes about 1 kilowatt or 1,000 watts.) Geological surveys have already found that about 23 times more power can be generated from geothermal resources on the 55,000 adjoining acres on which Raser has secured leases, but only one-fifth of the terrain has even been evaluated. Clayton is hopeful much more will be discovered, but the resources already identified could power one-third of Utah’s 750,000 homes. Of course, economics inform the national debate about which energy resources we should be using. That’s where geothermal gets even more interesting.
By Clayton’s estimate, the cost to explore, tap and build the geothermal generating capacity to power the typical American (1 kilowatt) home is about $4,000. If a solar plant could run all the time, it would cost about the same. But solar feeds the grid for only about one-fourth of the day, which would make the cost for additional solar capacity closer to $16,000 per home.
Wind-generation equipment can be built by a power utility for only about $1,500 per kilowatt, but the typical wind farm is on line about 33 percent of the time. That means the cost for a typical house’s slice of a wind-power plant is probably closer to $4,500.
The cost to construct the generating capacity to power a single home with a natural gas or coal-fired plant is only about $2,000 to build, half the price of geothermal. However, the ongoing economic and environmental expenses of those plants are higher because of the continued need for vanishing fossil fuels and the need for government to regulate the emissions more strictly. Natural gas-fired power generation is cleaner than coal, but both emit vast amounts of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
It’s tricky to calculate the financial cost/benefit for renewable energy sources compared to fossil fuels. Because human-generated carbon dioxide emissions may threaten life on this planet, any price may be worth paying. Fortunately, due to increased efficiencies in renewable-power generation, end-user prices are coming down.
According to Rocky Mountain Power spokesman David Eskelsen, the additional cost for customers to participate in the company’s Blue Sky renewable-energy program has decreased by two-thirds over the past decade. Only about 3 percent of RMP’s customers currently participate in this voluntary program to purchase green energy. By my calculations, buying renewable energy now only adds about 25 percent to customers’ power bills rather than adding more than 60 percent as the program did 10 years ago.
And if it weren’t for the costs of promoting and advertising the Blue Sky program to prospective customers and the costs of building small-scale solar and other community-based energy generation facilities, the costs would be even lower.
Eskelsen predicted that, with more capacity and efficiency in renewable-power generation, the cost differential between fossil-fueled and green power will shrink. The Blue Sky program currently relies mostly on wind power, and strategically locating its turbines in high-wind areas of Wyoming is resulting in them spinning nearly 40 percent of the time, as opposed to 33 percent at older wind farms.
RMP is also a player in geothermal. Its Blundell plant near Milford (only a few miles from Raser’s facility) has been producing 23,000 kilowatts of electricity since 1984. And recent efficiency enhancements bumped up production by an impressive 11,000 kilowatts.
According to Eskelsen, Rocky Mountain and its sister PacifiCorp company, MidAmerican Energy in Iowa, are now the two top utilities in the nation in terms of generated power coming from alternative sources. Coal-fired plants are still RMP’s primary source of power because of the relatively stable price of coal, but cleaner-burning natural gas and renewable energy are now a focus for the company.