Geothermal industry and experts gear up for GEA summit in Reno

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Geothermal industry and experts gear up for GEA summit in Reno

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For the next two days, experts in geothermal energy and policymakers will be meeting in Reno for the Geothermal Energy Association Summit. They'll discuss the promise of the region's rich energy source, as well as the challenges of expanding the clean energy source. In anticipation of that, KUNR's Will Stone visited one nearby geothermal plant.

For the next two days, experts in geothermal energy and policymakers will be meeting in Reno for the Geothermal Energy Association. They'll discuss the promise of the region's rich energy source, as well as the challenges of bringing more stations on-line. In anticipation of that, KUNR's Will Stone visited one nearby geothermal plant.

What's notable about Ormat's Steamboat Geothermal Complex from afar is that it's pretty unremarkable. Driving down Mount Rose highway in south Reno, it's easy to pass without noticing much more than a cluster of large pipes and some transmission lines. There's no billowing towers of steam or roaring turbines. In fact, Paul Thomsen, who's director of policy and business development for Ormat, says when they started building the plant, Reno was expanding and a high density residential area was slated to be built to the left of them and commercial developments were going to be put right on the foot of the property.

"We re-inject everything that we bring up from the ground. We don't consume any water, and another thing about these plants is that they're very low entropy. And what I mean by that is there's not a lot of things that can explode, blow up; gears don't fly apart. The highest temperature we're working with is 300 degrees fahrenheit."

And, of course, the biggest selling point: no emissions. Thomsen and others in the industry say the time is ripe for geothermal, given President Obama's speech on climate change and passage of state legislation, like Nevada's Senate Bill 123 that fast tracks the retirement of coal plants in the Silver State. And unlike some other renewables, geothermal can be appealing because a plant like Ormat produces 100 megawatts, without too much variability. It can also produce enough energy for the grid to power Reno's entire residential population.

So how does it all work?

Thomsen walks out to the substation that looks like a collection of large pipes and wells going into the ground.

"So we have two 8 megawatt turbines feeding one generator. The hot water is going into that big vessel called the vaporizer...and if you were to imagine that's filled with little tubes..."

Put simply, the water is flowing underground over a sort of natural radiator that comes from the earth's heat. That fluid is then used to heat a second geothermal liquid that vaporizes at a relatively lower temperature, which, in turn, moves a turbine. What's significant is that a geothermal binary plant like this one doesn't require enormous heat from, say, a geyser.

The technology has come far in the past decade. Still, the challenges for geothermal is cost, as it is with many renwables. A full-size production well can cost anywhere from 3 to 7 million dollars, says Thomsen. And there can be substantial exploration and drilling until a productive site is actually found. That requires a lot of money up front.

"When you find geothermal, what do you got? You sort of got a license to spend the next 10 years trying to figure out if can get a power purchase with NV Energy or someone like that...It's a much longer process. The risks and rewards aren't there."

That's Carl Gawell, who's the executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association. He says the incentives and support from government are not there like they are for oil.

"But I think we can develop it, too, if the incentives and the policies are there to say, 'if you find geothermal, there's going to be a pathway to make sure you can use it and sell it, which, right now, is one of our problems."

Geothermal has gravitated torward states like Nevada, both for the resources and because there's a renewable portfolio standard, which help create a market. Now, Thomsen says those markets have slowed. He says if states streamlined permitting the industry could expand faster.

What people in the indsutry would really like to see is the federal government support researching and finding geothermal resources, as it did with the oil industry.

How to make that happen will likely be one of the major topics explored at this week's summit. Reno-Sparks and the Tahoe Basin are, in many ways, at the center of the industry. Reno is home to seven of the largest geothermal operators, as well as many emerging developers. And Nevada is number one in the nation for geothermal energy production per capita. If the industry takes off, many believe this will be one of the places that reaps the benefits.

With Reno Public Radio news, I'm Will Stone.