Clean Energy Pioneers

October 2009

A Geothermal Economic Boost

Clean Energy Economy Heats Up in Idaho

Posted: 16-October-2009; Updated: 16-October-2009

From hot springs to geysers, signs point to powerful forces churning beneath the Idaho landscape, yet all that pent up power has not translated to clean, new energy above ground in this region. Until now.

A Boise-based firm, U.S. Geothermal Inc., is making a power play by becoming the first commercial geothermal energy plant in the region. The company hopes its Raft River Valley generating station will presage many new geothermal power plants in a land dominated by big rivers churning hydroelectric power.

At 13 megawatts, the U.S. Geothermal plant will supply clean energy for about 10,000 homes. It is also in prime position to tap even more power from under the ground because the Raft River Valley, 200 miles southeast of Boise, is a geothermal hotspot ripe for energy expansion.

"We are looking at doing more and more of this across the Northwest," said Doug Glaspey, the company's chief operating officer. "We're just seeing tremendous growth in geothermal as a clean-technology option.

A hot economic boost from geothermal power

Companies have been using micro-scale geothermal power for years in Idaho. For example, Boise-based Flora Co., growers of ornamental flowers and fish, has for the past 11 years used 117-degree water pumped from the earth to heat a 100,000 square foot greenhouse, offices and a pond. "It's so much cheaper," said Flora Co. manager Greg Vanhoover, "we save thousands of dollars every year by not running our gas heaters."

Other Idaho sites heated by geothermal energy: Government buildings in Boise; fish and alligator ponds near Twin Falls; and the College of Southern Idaho near Twin Falls.

The U.S. Geothermal power plant, which began commercial operation in 2008 on a former Energy Department site, is a quantum leap forward because it spreads geothermal-generated electricity over a far wider area.

"It greatly expands the market for geothermal (energy) hugely beyond what's been done historically," said Gerald Fleishman, senior energy specialist at the Idaho Office of Energy Resources. He said studies show that Idaho could potentially generate 700 megawatts of geothermal power.

Geothermal power yields multiple economic dividends

With the new geothermal megawatts also flows economic opportunity. Two years ago, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's first competitive geothermal lease sale under the Energy Policy Act netted $5.7 million in bonuses for five Idaho parcels encompassing nearly 9,000 acres in the Raft River Valley. Half the monies collected were distributed to the state, 25 percent to Cassia County, and 25 percent to the BLM. In addition, about 3 percent of the gross electric sales revenue from the U.S. Geothermal plant, or about $184,000 annually is returned to Cassia County where the U.S. Geothermal project operates, Fleishman said.

Glaspey said the generating station cost $52 million to build, and provided jobs in construction, exploration and drilling, plus a dozen permanent jobs to operate the plant. "This is a very rural community. [T]hese (energy) jobs are well paying jobs,' he said.

Geothermal is a winning solution

In addition, the price of geothermal power is increasingly competitive and often geothermal can be tapped directly, eliminating the need for controversial power transmission lines. Better still, geothermal energy is constant and never takes a day off, providing a steady flow of electricity.

"Utilities like geothermal because it's base load power, it operates long term and it has a 50-year history in the United States," Glaspey said. "It's a great technology and a great industry to be in."