The Forgotten Renewable: Geothermal Energy Production Heats Up

Feb 4, 2018
Originally published on February 5, 2018 4:34 pm

Three and a half hours east of Los Angeles lies the Salton Sea, a manmade oasis in the heart of the Mojave Desert. It was created in 1905, when a canal broke and the Colorado River flooded the desert for more than a year. The Sea became a tourist hotspot in the 1950's, perfect for swimming, boating, and kayaking. But now, people are coming here looking for something else.

Jim Turner is the chief operating officer of Controlled Thermal Resources, an energy company from Australia. On a hill overlooking the Salton Sea, he points out a patch of land that will someday house his company's first power plant, named Hell's Kitchen.

"We're standing on top of what is probably the most robust geothermal resource in the United States," he explains.

Geothermal energy uses the earth's natural heat to create electricity. While there are several different ways to accomplish this, the most common is to take super-heated water from geothermal hot spots and pipe it to the surface. It then turns into steam and spins a turbine, which generates electricity.

It's completely renewable, and generates clean energy around the clock, unlike wind and solar.

"You think of renewable energy as a house, solar is the roof and the wind is the walls," says Jason Czapla, principal engineer for Controlled Thermal Resources. "But geothermal's the foundation, and what California did is it built the walls and the roof, but on wild, windy days it blows too much rain on the roof [and] that house falls down. Well, the Salton Sea is this opportunity for California to fix that."

The company wants to develop 1,000 megawatts of electricity here over the next decade. They say that could power about 800,000 homes. And for a state that's aiming to get half its electricity from renewable sources, that's no small number.

"Our development coincides with the state's target, 2030 being the ultimate goal getting to 50 percent," says Czapla. "And our goal is to build up that 1,000 megawatts and help them increase the renewable energy portfolio."

But it's not just California that's got these resources.

Colin Williams, a geothermal expert at the U.S. Geological Survey, published a report in 2008 in which he explained that there are untapped geothermal reservoirs throughout the American West.

The report also elaborated on a developing technology that could drastically increase the amount of power the Earth can provide, called enhanced geothermal systems.

In order for a reservoir to be able to provide geothermal energy, it has to have three things: heat, water, and permeability. In other words: hot, wet rock, with enough fractures in it to allow water to pass through. Enhanced geothermal systems is the process of taking areas with only one or two of those conditions – hot, dry rock with very little fractures, for example – and altering it to satisfy all three conditions. That could mean cracking underground rock to allow more water to pass through, or inserting water into the rockbed to be heated.

Williams says scientists and engineers are still working on the technology for enhanced geothermal systems, but if they are able to make it a reality, that could potentially open up thousands of megawatts of energy potential from new reservoirs. And that could someday take from the country's current 3,000 megawatts of geothermal energy production to almost 500,000.

"To put that into perspective," Williams says," the entire electric power generating capacity in the United States is about a million megawatts."

So if there's that much clean energy just waiting in the ground, what's taking so long?

Allyson Anderson Book directs the American Geosciences Institute, a nonprofit network of geoscientists around the country. She says that geothermal energy has been historically overlooked as a renewable energy source, to the point that it is sometimes referred to as the "forgotten renewable."

Book says there are social and technical challenges that have kept geothermal from becoming a major player in the energy field. The technology is complex, and plants are expensive to build.

"There's a lot of different factors that play in," Book says. "And so the Department of Energy right now is spending a lot of time and energy in something called the FORGE project."

The FORGE project is an Energy Department initiative that would create a dedicated test site for exploring enhanced geothermal systems. Currently, the proposed test sites are in Fallon, Nev., run by Sandia National Laboratories and Milford, Utah, run by the University of Utah, where researchers plan to experiment with new geothermal technology. The idea is, if they can make enhanced geothermal systems a reality, then geothermal energy production around the country would skyrocket.

But back at the Salton Sea, Controlled Thermal Resources isn't waiting on new technology — it's hoping to exploit what's already there.

In his office in El Centro, Calif., CEO Rod Colwell plays an aerial video of the southern end of the Salton Sea, where the Hell's Kitchen plant will go. It's still in the permitting stages, and it's going to cost a lot of money – around a billion dollars. But if it's successful, Colwell plans to build more. He hopes to build enough plants to be able to produce 1,000 megawatts of electricity, which could power about 800,000 homes. And with California looking to phase out its use of fossil fuels, that's no small number.

"Particularly in California," Colwell says, "we will not be able to import any carbon-fired energy after 2025. So it's important that geothermal is that integral value in the mix."

Geothermal's got a long way to go. But Colwell and others are betting that new technology and the demand for clean energy will someday bring this forgotten renewable to the forefront of clean power.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to hear now about a different natural resource - geothermal reservoirs. They are all across the American West, and they could be used to power millions of homes. But extracting energy from them is not easy. From member station KVCR in San Bernardino, Benjamin Purper reports.

BENJAMIN PURPER: Three and a half hours east of Los Angeles lies the Salton Sea. It was created when a canal broke in 1985 and the Colorado River flooded the desert. The windy oasis became a tourist attraction for a while, but now it's drawing people in for other reasons.

JIM TURNER: So what you're looking at is - this is the playa that we...

PURPER: Jim Turner works for a company looking for buried treasure. He's the chief operating officer of Controlled Thermal Resources, the company that came all the way to the Salton Sea from Australia. The reason?

TURNER: We're standing on top of what's probably the most robust geothermal resource in the United States.

PURPER: Geothermal energy - it means using the Earth's natural heat to create electricity. It's renewable, and it generates clean energy around the clock, unlike wind and solar.

COLLIN WILLIAMS: The fundamental way in which geothermal energy works is taking advantage of hot water where it's accessible near the Earth's surface.

PURPER: Collin Williams is a geothermal expert for the U.S. Geological Survey. He says you can extract geothermal energy by taking that hot water and turning it into steam, which powers a turbine and produces electricity. Right now, you can only do that in reservoirs that have a lot of hot, wet rock, like the Salton Sea.

But Williams says there's a new technology in development called enhanced geothermal systems. It takes dry rock and cracks it just enough for hot water to pass through. That would essentially create new reservoirs, enough to someday take the country's geothermal energy production from 3,000 megawatts to almost 500,000.

WILLIAMS: To put that in perspective, the entire electric power-generating capacity in the United States is about a million megawatts.

PURPER: So if there's that much clean energy just waiting in the ground, what's taking so long?

ALLYSON ANDERSON BOOK: You never really hear people call it geothermal. They call it the forgotten renewable.

PURPER: Allyson Anderson Book directs the American Geosciences Institute. She says technical and social challenges have made it difficult for geothermal to catch up with the likes of wind and solar energy. Enhanced geothermal systems isn't really viable yet. And even the more traditional plants take a lot of time and money to get built.

ANDERSON BOOK: There's a lot of different factors that play in. And so they're looking - so the Department of Energy right now is spending a lot of time and energy in something called the FORGE project.

PURPER: FORGE would create a test site dedicated to making enhanced geothermal systems a reality. The idea is if engineers can make this process easy, geothermal energy production would skyrocket. But back at the Salton Sea, Controlled Thermal Resources isn't waiting on new technology. It's hoping to exploit what's already here right now.

ROD COLWELL: So this video here, as that's receding, as that drone is moving away, that's exposing some of the best geothermal resource, not in the U.S., but on the planet - right there.

PURPER: In his office, CEO Rod Colwell shows me an aerial video of the playa I visited earlier where his first geothermal plant will be. It's still in the permitting stages, and it's going to cost a lot of money to get built - around a billion dollars. But if it's successful, Colwell plans to build more plants, enough to reach 1,000 megawatts, which could power about 800,000 homes. And with California looking to phase out its use of fossil fuels, that's no small number.

COLWELL: Particularly, in California, we will not be able to import any carbon-fired energy after 2025. So it's important that geothermal is that integral value in the mix.

PURPER: Geothermal's got a long way to go, but Colwell and others are betting that new technology and the demand for clean energy will someday bring this forgotten renewable to the forefront of clean power. For NPR News, I'm Benjamin Purper at the Salton Sea in California.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SESHEN'S "OBLIVION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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