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September 01, 2010 News » Cover Story

Steam Dream: Utah's Geothermal Energy Potential 

Utah tempts entrepreneurs with its trifecta of renewable energy sources.

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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.

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Yellowstone 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.

Hot Spots
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.”

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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.

Energy Economics
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.

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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.

Government Assistance
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.

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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.

Tar Balled
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)

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Jim Catano is a freelance editor and writer and environmental-health entrepreneur living in Salt Lake City.

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