Clean Energy Pioneers

August 2009

A Clean Energy Gold Rush

Geothermal Energy: A Sure Bet for Nevada

Posted: 6-August-2009; Updated: 6-August-2009

Few early prospectors who tramped the Nevada desert got rich, but had those early seekers looked deeper, they would've found real riches beneath the Great Basin's rippling mountains in the form of thermal energy.

Today, a new generation of prospectors has rediscovered Nevada and is pioneering clean energy by punching holes in the ground and bringing clean, reliable, base load geothermal power, as well as economic opportunity, to cities and rural communities in Nevada.

John Bernardy is one of the pioneers. After the Navy, he left stints on Montana fire crews and at Nevada gold mines to work as a chemical engineer at Reno-based Ormat Technologies Inc., where he said he found steady employment and an opportunity to do good.

"Around here, there isn't a lot for chemical engineers. I wanted to get into power production and Ormat was offering a renewable energy source that runs 24-7, so I saw it as an opportunity," Bernardy said.

Green collar job opportunities

Ormat is in the forefront of this subterranean land rush. As the largest geothermal developer in the United States, the company mines a prolific resource along Interstate 80 near Fallon, 60 miles east of Reno, where hot magma flows near the Earth's crust. The site is so remote it would take six hours of driving to reach the next big cities, Salt Lake City to the east or Boise to the north. .

Ormat builds about five new power stations per year in various locations. It is poised to open a new 30 megawatt generating station near Fallon in partnership with state-owned utility Nevada Power. Ormat has grown from 10 U.S. employees in 1995 to 500 today, including 130 in Nevada.

Some 1,500 megawatts of geothermal power could be produced in Nevada by 2015, said Paul Thomsen, director of policy and business development for Ormat. NV Energy's recently cancelled Ely Energy Center coal plant complex was a 1500 megawatt facility.

"We've only scratched the surface. The potential for this resource is endless," he said.

Bernardy said he is fortunate to find work in geothermal. Jobs for people with technical skills are few in northern Nevada – one of his friends from college works as a gas attendant at Costco and the other returned to school. He said the chance to help protect the planet while earning a living wage makes geothermal jobs appealing.

"Being in renewable energy is night and day (improvement) from working in a gold mine. And there are benefits for everyone because we're working for the planet. That's job satisfaction," Bernardy said.

And geothermal energy is more than potential; it's available now. For example, Ormat has four power plants operating in the hills around Reno. Nevada is the nation's second leading geothermal producer and has 45 new projects underway, which will add jobs, according to the Great Basin Center for Geothermal Energy at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Clean, baseload power energizes Nevada's economy

Geothermal power stations use heat from the Earth to warm water or other fluids to make steam, which drives turbines. Electricity goes to cities, the water stays behind. Geothermal power produces so-called base load power and can operate at 95 percent capacity all day, year-round. It produces almost no air pollutants or gases that contribute to global warming.

In northern Nevada, Churchill County Commissioner Norm Frey welcomes geothermal power. Five power stations near Fallon produce more electricity than the town's 8,000 people use, so much of it is exported for use outside of town.

Geothermal energy companies pay Churchill County $601,443 in net county tax proceeds and $1.6 million in property taxes annually, according to officials. The revenue helps pay for schools, Frey said. The companies also provide good-paying jobs and help fill local hotels and restaurants with customers.

"We want these (geothermal) resources in our community. It's green energy and we want to see it developed," Frey said.

Unlike Western boom towns that came and went when precious ore ran out, today's geothermal energy prospectors have an almost inexhaustible supply. The Western Governors' Association estimates about 5,630 megawatts of geothermal energy are viable for commercial development in the West by 2015.

"This is a new type of gold for Nevada and it's going to be far more valuable today than silver or gold. The geothermal industries are the new prospectors," Ormat's Thomsen said.