Much of the cost of finding and burning fossil fuels is currently subsidized by favorable tax arrangements or is otherwise “externalized.” But, the era of allowing pollutants to be released freely into the atmosphere at the expense of the health of the entire planet is slowly coming to an end.
The financial and environmental equation for nuclear power is even less attractive. Not only does a nuclear plant cost more to build than a geothermal facility, it has to be fed uranium. Even if a significant number of the world’s nuclear weapons were converted into fuel, new uranium is generally harder to find and extract than fossil fuels. The waste issue also plagues nuclear power, while there are no toxic leftovers from wind, solar and geothermal.
The political climate also bodes well for Utah’s renewable-energy future. According to Clayton, all of the nation’s coal-fired power-plant proposals in recent years have been shelved as there’s just too much uncertainty over the cost of environmental controls that might become required. Citizen and government regulatory opposition to things like mountain-top-removal coal mining and power-plant emissions have become significant obstacles, and much ballyhooed technologies like carbon capture and sequestration (if they ever become realities) are expected to significantly increase the cost of coal burning. Plus, investment trends show that even normally plucky venture capitalists are becoming leery of iffy fossil-fuel projects.
And compare the environmental impacts of geothermal to those of a new fossil-fuel extraction method being proposed for Utah by the privately held Canadian company, Earth Energy Resources. Just north of the Book Cliffs and Green River, the largest tar sands deposits in the United States have been identified. They’re much smaller than those in Canada where commercial extraction is occurring in Alberta in an area about the size of Florida, but the process of extracting tar sands in Utah would be just as problematic.
At a recent Utah Department of Natural Resources meeting where both the company and protest groups were present, I learned the process involves the following: The oil-bearing sand is surface mined in a process that scrapes off the topsoil, sets it aside for later remediation, and then digs pits 150 to 500 feet deep to reach the deposits. After extraction, it’s subjected on-site to a separation process that requires a substantial amount of natural gas for heat and consumes or contaminates up to four barrels of water for each barrel of crude oil extracted.
Because of Utah’s already overly taxed water supply, a slightly different process would be used, requiring two barrels of water plus a recyclable solvent. Then there are the problems associated with treating and managing the waste created by the separation process and the challenges of remediating the land in ways that are effective and environmentally sound. Some experts argue that the unconsolidated soils of central Utah will just blow away in the wind if disturbed and desertification of the mined areas will result.
Even after tar-sand crude arrives at a Salt Lake refinery after a long tank ride, it would require special processing to remove contaminants such as arsenic, mercury, nickel, lead, and cyanide that are not present in conventional crude oil. Those toxins would have to be recovered and disposed of safely so as to not pollute groundwater.
Even when the refining process is complete, the end product is still a fossil fuel that produces three times more greenhouse gas than fuel from conventional crude oil. The typical oil well looks inexpensive and clean by comparison. In fact, tar sands may be the least attractive option for a state that’s at least starting to pay lip service to weaning itself away from fossil fuels. A number of residents of Grand and Uintah counties and environmentalists across the globe are already teaming up to oppose the extraction of Utah’s tar sands, according to environmental activist group Peaceful Uprising’s Website.
On the other hand, almost everyone welcomes geothermal-energy development, although it does have its detractors. Most are suspicious of a drilling technology known as Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS). In situations where there may be hot rock at an easily reached depth but a lack of water and/or permeability prevents it from moving through to be heated, a method known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is used. A blend of chemicals and water are injected under extreme pressure into the rock to force it to shatter so underground water can pass through it. This procedure has been used to enhance production in over a million gas and oil wells since it was developed 60 years ago. While it can also enhance geothermal resources, it causes problems, too, including groundwater contamination and accidents such as a recent one at a Pennsylvania gas well that spewed 35,000 gallons of highly toxic fracking fluid over a large area.
An EGS demonstration project at The Geysers geothermal facility in California was suspended last year over such concerns. The Geysers is one of the largest geothermal projects in the world supplying about 60 percent of coastal northern California’s power and has been operating since 1960, but diminishing yield from its wells prompted a controversial attempt to “frack” in one area. Partly in response to a medium-size quake in Basel, Switzerland, triggered by a “fracked” well, the project was shelved. Similarly, “dry rock” geothermal operations in which surface water is injected underground to substitute for absent ground water could potentially “lube” fault lines and cause earthquakes.
All this makes Utah’s geothermal development look that much better. According to Raser’s West, his company is committed to using only naturally free-flowing geothermal water, resources that don’t require fracking within the Utah Renewable Energy Zone (UREZ) established by the Legislature under Huntsman. The overlap of all three types of renewable energy potential in the central-eastern portion of the state provide Utah’s opportunity to jump from near last place in green-energy production to among the top three states in the nation. (See the interactive map at MapServ.Utah.Gov/urez)
Furthermore, most of those resources lie only a few miles from existing power transmission lines heading north or south to California. Raser is developing—along with its Korean partner Hyundai—a blended combination of solar and wind generation along with geothermal in what West claims is “the ultimate in green power … zero-carbon emissions with geothermal providing the base-load for when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine”—downtime is the major limitation of wind and solar.
Finally, according to Raser, the development of all its resources requires nonstop construction for more than 20 years. That means a long period of well-paid jobs and permanent employment for operations personnel in some of the state’s most financially stressed areas.
I left highly impressed by what I saw that day in the desert. Raser and companies like it have a golden opportunity to develop geothermal as a primary energy source.
Wouldn’t it be nice to do that without depleting fossil-fuel reserves, fouling the atmosphere, heating the planet, raising the oceans or burying nuclear waste in our backyard?
What Is Geothermal Energy? (courtesy of International Geothermal Association)
Jim Catano is a freelance editor and writer and environmental-health entrepreneur living in Salt Lake City.