Geothermal plants would tap ‘Ring of Fire’

By Tom Paulson
Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Buried heat could make steam to produce electricity

The Pacific Northwest, which sits on the volcano-laden “Ring of Fire” bordering the Pacific Ocean, would seem an obvious spot to pursue geothermal power.

For Gordon Bloomquist, it has been obvious for nearly 30 years. He and others have estimated that by capturing the Earth’s subterranean heat and converting it into electricity, they could generate enough power for 2 million homes.

But, only now, as the Washington State University geochemist prepares to retire and take his talents to work on geothermal projects for the World Bank in Eastern Europe and Africa, does it look as if this region may be pushed to exploit the hot-rock power lurking beneath our feet.

“Part of the problem has been opposition to renewables by the power companies,” he said.

It’s not direct opposition, he said, just starvation by delay, bureaucracy, throwing up logistic or financial hurdles (such as charging new projects exorbitant “connection” fees) — or simple apathy.

The city of Seattle in the 1980s leased 50,000 acres near Mount Baker to explore geothermal energy, he said, but never invested further. It faded away.

“I hope Initiative 937 finally changes the situation,” Bloomquist said. “Despite the huge potential, we’re not even coming close to realizing it.”

Initiative 937 may help, but stimulating the necessary research and development will require more federal investment, said Susan Petty, a longtime colleague of Bloomquist’s and a partner in the Seattle-based geothermal energy firm Black Mountain Technology.

There is no tax incentive for utilities to invest in geothermal energy, and any power produced by independent operators has to be sold by the utilities at cost, so it generally just hurts the utilities’ bottom line.

“This, along with the lack of government investment in feasibility studies and the fact that in the Northwest we’ve had cheap hydropower for so long, has just made it something few here took seriously as a renewable energy resource,” Petty said.

Until now, perhaps.

Petty was among 18 experts who earlier this year issued a 400- page report sponsored by the Department of Energy and led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that concluded that geothermal power has the potential to produce much of the nation’s electrical power, cleanly and at a relatively low cost.

But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. In most cases, the first step is to drill more than a mile deep into the rock to reach superheated water.

The MIT study suggested drilling deeper into dry rock and injecting water.

“It’s cost-effective to try right now in lots of places, especially out here in the West,” Petty said.

Once the utilities, the government and industry get on board, Bloomquist said, the next big challenge will be to make drilling cheaper and easier.

“There are still a lot of risks to pursuing geothermal energy,” he said. “It’s well worth the risk at this point. Even George Bush is using geothermal now, to heat his home in Texas.”

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