Geothermal Power Projects Pick Up Steam

With federal funding support, city officials in Klamath Falls, Ore., explore new technology that converts low-temp underground water into electricity.

by / March 24, 2010
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Photo: Toni Boyd, assistant director of the Oregon Institute of Technology (OIT) Geo-Heat Center, stands in the OIT Power Plant/Photo courtesy of Oregon Institute of Technology

Alternative energy in Klamath Falls, Ore., has always been a hot topic.

The city, with its high-desert landscape, sits above natural geothermal springs, which residents have used for 100 years to heat their homes. Hot rocks and geysers keep the sidewalks warm when the winter comes and pump heat into buildings downtown.

But now, as states try to harness the wind and absorb the sun to produce power in new, greener ways, Klamath Falls plans to tap into the same geothermal pocket to generate electricity. After receiving an $800,000 grant in stimulus funds from the U.S. Department of Energy, city officials are moving forward with a $1.6 million project that will convert excess geothermal energy into power for the grid, according to City Manager Jeff Ball.

"It further puts the community in a leadership role in the use of geothermal energy in the country," Ball said. "We are going to use the power first to run pumps in the system. Anything over and above that will be sold back to the grid."

For a long time, there were only four states that generated geothermal power: California, Nevada, Utah and Hawaii. But over time, more states found the solution to shrink their carbon footprints. Across the country, states such as New Mexico, Wyoming, Idaho, Arkansas and Oregon realized that geothermal power provided an energy source that is much cleaner and more reliable than fossil fuels.

Geothermal activity has been around worldwide for decades, used for bathing and washing. As technology improved, applications expanded. In Iceland, for instance, geothermal sources account for 63 percent of primary energy use. Now, 24 countries, including the U.S., have geothermal operations up and running, according to Toni Boyd, assistant director of the Geo-Heat Center at the Oregon Institute of Technology (OIT).

Cool Factor

The latest trends in geothermal technology can be traced to Alaska. In 2006, United Technologies Corp. built the Chena Hot Springs geothermal power plant, which could generate power from water less than 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

It was a breakthrough, Boyd said, because "six years ago, to generate power at less than 250 degrees was unthinkable."

Last year, OIT purchased the technology and built a 1,300-square-foot power plant on campus, which sits on four geothermal wells. In February, the plant went online, producing about 200 kilowatts. The institute has already started reaping the rewards.

"Our first electric bill after we did the power plant said we don't owe any money," Boyd said, adding that the bill before the new power plant was $3,500.

In OIT's heat exchange building, the binary system uses heat in the geothermal water to turn a secondary fluid into steam. The steam goes through a turbine -- which generates power -- then gets condensed back into liquid in the cooling tower as part of a continuous loop.

The plant produces more power than the meter uses, Boyd said, and the extra energy will be sold to the grid once they develop a purchase-power agreement. The water from the geothermal wells is only 192 degrees, so the project wouldn't be possible without the new technology. OIT already has plans to set up another power plant in the near future.

"We're the only university in the world that we know of to produce power and heat with resources under our foot," Boyd said. "We have everything right underneath us."

Location, Location, Location

The first rule of real estate also applies to geothermal projects, and Klamath Falls is a prime example. It's a geothermal goldmine, with about 600 wells under the city. The Klamath Basin, Ball said, generates 50 megawatts of

geothermal energy every year. Most wells can be found on the hillside, tapped by locals for private use.

"We've got fairly easy access to low-temp geothermal energy," he said. "Folks out there had been tapping it for as long as the city has been around."

It wasn't until the 1980s that the city started utilizing the renewable treasure buried underground. With support from the U.S. Department of Energy, Ball said, the city set up a geothermal heating district, which currently pumps heat into 20 downtown businesses and government buildings.

The latest project seeks to expand the city's geothermal potential in the wake of OIT's implementation. Once the system is set up, the city plans to pursue a 20-year power-purchase agreement, Ball said, and any revenue will flow back into the system for capital upgrades or an extension.

"We need to be able to sell the power back to the utility," he said. "We figure that we'll break even in seven to eight years."


Russell Nichols Staff Writer