Impacts of Geothermal Exploration

Renewable energy — By Stephanie on November 6, 2008 at 11:42 am
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Hot steam arises from the earth

I live in Central Oregon, an area of the United States that is rich in geothermal resources. The region is dotted with volcanoes and lava fields – evidence of the earth’s continued creation over millions of years. Recently, there has been quite a debate about the environmental impacts of geothermal exploration. One of our area’s most treasured natural wonders, the Newberry National Volcanic Monument, approximately 25 miles south of Bend, Oregon, may be affected by nearby drilling of more than 10,000 feet into the earth’s surface to look for steam or hot water that could provide renewable energy in the form of geothermal power.

With the race towards finding viable alternative energy sources to lessen our need for foreign oil supplies, as well as our carbon footprint, some worry that environmental impacts of geothermal exploration will be brushed under the rug. The Oregon Department of Energy is working to make sure that doesn’t happen in this state. Last week, it organized a meeting between industry and environmental advocates in Bend, Oregon. One of the primary concerns of environmentalists is whether Davenport Power, the company that is developing the Newberry Project, will need water to inject into wells to generate steam. If so, what will be the source of such water in an area commonly known as the “High Desert?”

In the sensitive, dry area of Central Oregon, water is at a premium. Water rights are closely protected and not handed out readily. Environmental groups like the Sierra Club are concerned that hydrology of ground water and resulting effects on ecology that may be negative impacts of geothermal exploration. In addition, as the Sierra Club spokesperson, Asante Riverwind stated in a recent intervew:

“If you go up to the Newberry and Paulina Peak lookout, and look to the west, you will see a big, tall tower, derrick. It’s the drill tower. It’s a big industrial site. Massive clearcut, all kinds of piping. Heavy equipment.”

“People can say it’s NIMBY, not in my backyard. Or, not in this treasured monument. This is a world, treasured area. Do we want to put a big industrial plant in the middle of Yellowstone Park? Do we want to tap Yellowstone Geyser, that’s geothermal. No one is proposing that. This is Newberry Monument, which is one of our Yellowstones, in Oregon.”

The Bureau of Land Management (the landlord of the leases that will allow geothermal exploration at Newberry Crater) issued an environmental document in which it determined that there would not be significant environmental impacts that would require a formal environmental impact statement. In fact, on October 22, 2008, the BLM announced that it would open even more public lands for potential drilling, discounting the asserted impacts of geothermal exploration.

Notwithstanding the stated environmental concerns, the relative “green-ness” of geothermal energy, compared with coal or natural gas, is really astounding. Davenport Power says it has a deal to sell 120-megawatts of power, enough to power 50,000 homes, to a California utility. As stated on the U.S. Geothermal, Inc. website164393009 0900b1ecc3 m Impacts of Geothermal Exploration:

Unlike coal fired and natural gas fired power generation plants, the state of the art geothermal binary cycle plant produces virtually no emissions. When compared to natural gas, a 100 MW geothermal power generator offsets 190,000 pounds of NoX and SoX (nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide) per year. Additionally, it eliminates 780 million pounds of CO2 emissions. The reduction in emissions, when compared to coal fired plants, is even greater.

The amount of land required for geothermal power plants is smaller per megawatt than for almost every other type of power plant. It truly has among the lowest environmental effects, as the impacts of geothermal exploration do not include damming of rivers or clear-cutting forests. Nor are there any mine shafts, tunnels, open pits, waste heaps or oil spills. Of course, living in the gorgeous Central Oregon area and having been to the Paulina Peak and Newberry Crater areas with my family, I can agree that a monstrous drilling machine would certainly look out of place in the natural beauty.
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In the Newberry Crater National Park

Is this a price worth paying in exchange for the many positive environmental impacts of geothermal energy?

We can expect to see more requests for geothermal exploration in the future, as well. The relative cost of geothermal energy is close to that of coal and natural gas, which has increased demand for the green energy source. Beyond the Newberry Crater area, there are a number of other “hot spots” in Oregon that are being explored and utilized. At the Neal Hot Springs site in Eastern Oregon (90 miles northwest of Boise), a 9.6 square mile site includes enough geothermal resources to provide 26 megawatts of power production. Crump Geyser in Lake County, Oregon is also in the process of obtaining permits and a power purchase agreement. In Klamath Falls, near the Oregon-California border, the city uses geothermally warmed water for schools, hospitals and more. It also pipes geothermal heat under its sidewalks to melt snow and ice during the winter season. Just outside of Klamath Falls, the Oregon Institute of Technology is expanding its own geothermal projects. The campus is saving $1 million a year on its heating bill as a result of utilizing geothermal energy. With 2 new planned power plants, the campus will be 100% green in the very near future.

What do you think about potential impacts of geothermal exploration? Are you in the “drill baby, drill,” camp, or a bit more skeptical of the cost-benefit analysis? If not geothermal, then what? Please share your comments below.

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  1. sal sciortino says:

    Please inform me of the source material for the quote ” There is 50000 times more heat energy contained in the first six miles of the Earth’s crust than in all the planet’s oil and natural gas resources”

    This quote appeared in the LA Times Business article by Marla Dickerson entitled Companies harness Earth’s heat on November 3, 2008.

    Thank you.

    Sal Sciortino

  2. Stephanie says:

    Hi Sal, that quote is found in a number of articles on geothermal energy. My research shows that it probably originated in a report issued by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy in March 2001. If you would like to view the report in its entirety, please see:

    Thanks for your comment,


  3. 20MW thermal power plant project at Mathura in UP.

  4. tony says:

    What is the worse case scenario for geothermal power? A clear cut forest of a handful of square acres? Explain how this is worse that the amount of product-able farm lands that have been swallowed up by the many reservoirs built for the dams and coal fired plants that spew millions of tons of hazardous chemicals into the air we breath.
    America must wake up and rid ourselves of the conservative mantra that oil is and will always be our salvation. Even if geothermal isn’t the final answer, it is still a thousand times better then the system we use now. Being at the mercy of Big Oil for our energy needs is why America sticks its nose into every squabble that will jeopardize our supply and keep the oil prices artificially low.

    After we tax payers are forced to foot the bill from the Gulf Oil Spill, thanks to the Conservative Supreme Court and their ties to Big Oil, maybe the average citizen will take the only reasonable stance and demand our government focus on real independent, renewable energy.

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