Toni Boyd, assistant director of the Geo-Heat Center at OIT, at the campus’s new geothermal power plant.
Cheaper technology, stimulus funding and interest in renewable power have spurred a renaissance in geothermal exploration in Oregon after decades of failed attempts.
In February, a 280-kilowatt demonstration-sized power plant at Oregon Institute of Technology became the first functioning geothermal power plant in Oregon since 1982, when a Lakeview plant shut down after just a year. At least seven geothermal power projects with a combined potential of about 200 megawatts are now competing to become the second.
OIT has identified 2,195 potential sources of geothermal energy in Oregon capable of producing 594 billion BTUs per year. That energy has never been successfully harnessed on a commercial scale. Developers have been deterred in Oregon by relatively low geothermal temperatures, the fact that many of the best geothermal resources are on publicly owned lands and the challenge of competing with cheap Northwest power rates.
Some exploration continued despite these challenges and many of the sites with projects under way today were first explored 30 to 50 years ago. But the floor usually dropped out for one reason or another: failure to find high enough temperatures, opposition for environmental reasons or lack of a buyer.
But geothermal has a future in Oregon’s renewable energy portfolio because it’s a steady source of power, says independent energy consultant Alex Sifford of Neskowin.
“Wind and solar… generate power only a portion of the day or the year,” he says. “But what’s really ideal from a utility viewpoint is power that can operate 365 days a year, all day long, and be regulated.”
Efforts were boosted in November when geothermal energy projects across the state in various stages of progress received $40 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grants. The recipients include the geo-heated city of Klamath Falls, which received $800,000 for a 10-megawatt plant, and is now undertaking a detailed feasibility study.
A $2 million ARRA grant for a low-temperature generator went to the Surprise Electrification Valley Corporation for a plant in Paisley, Lake County, which has about 250 residents. That project made it past the riskiest stages of identification and exploration, when companies have been known to drill wells as deep as 10,000 feet at huge expense without striking hot water or steam, and is now triumphantly projecting a 70% chance of final success.
Probably the most promising project is a 26-megawatt plant at Neal Hot Springs in Malheur County, which is being developed by Idaho-based U.S. Geothermal. The plant was not funded by ARRA, but it’s on track to receive an $85 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy, and U.S. Geothermal has already signed a power purchase agreement with Idaho Power.
As soon as the plant’s construction plans are finalized, Idaho Power will build an 11-mile power line that it expects to energize by April 2011.
In the meantime, OIT’s demonstration plant has been running smoothly and saving the campus money on its electric bill. The school already has plans for another plant.