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Power from the underground

The West is just beginning to tap its potential for clean, renewable geothermal energy


By James Yearling

High Country News

The thought of Nevada’s cities — lighting up the desert landscape with neon lights, all-you-can-eat buffets and noisy slot machines — makes most environmentalists cringe. It’s not just aesthetic: These gambling hubs are seen as gluttonous resource gulpers. One of them, however, is gaining praise for its production of renewable energy.

The city of Reno, north of Las Vegas, is a "hotspot" for geothermal power production. Geothermal plants now provide enough electricity to serve all 200,000 residents. And energy analysts say Reno's success barely scratches the surface: Projects slated for the West could nearly double the nation’s geothermal generating capacity in the next few years, according to a new survey from the Geothermal Energy Association.

Geothermal sources now generate nearly 3,000 megawatts per year in the U.S. — more than any other nation, but still only 0.4 percent of total energy use, roughly equivalent to two large coal-fired power plants. The investment risk is still too high for a commercial-scale geothermal industry to flourish, according to Jefferson Tester of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the projects take years of planning and construction and don’t get the large government subsidies that other energy producers do. But adequate federal funding for research and development would smooth out operational kinks, slash the risk and give investors more confidence, he says.

“We know the resources are there, it’s just a matter of developing them,” says Karl Gawell, executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association. “The solution isn't black-and-white, and we have a long way to go, but we have all the pieces — they just have to be put together.”

The West is prime for geothermal development because its underground reservoirs of steam, hot water and hot rocks tend to lie close to the surface, especially in places like the Pacific Northwest’s Cascade Mountains and Southern California's Imperial Valley. Half of all geothermal energy production in the nation is in the West, and 90 per cent of the identified geothermal resources are on Western public lands.

In its infancy, geothermal electricity production required extremely hot water, over 360 degrees Fahrenheit (182 Celsius). New technology, however, allows the use of water as cool as 165 degrees (74 Celsius), greatly expanding opportunities for power production. Geothermal energy can also be tapped directly as a heating source.

In some places, geothermal heating districts have been established; one such system uses hot water pipes to heat 37 buildings in San Bernardino, California.