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Proposed 100-MW Geothermal Plant Bubbling in Southeastern Idaho

Mark Ohrenschall
Con.Web, August 28, 2003

Steaming Forward

The proposed Wild Horse Wind Power Project would be located in the distant vicinity shown here. (Photo by Mark Ohrenschall) A proposed geothermal power venture envisioned at 100 megawatts capacity is emerging in southeastern Idaho.

Developer Idatherm hopes to begin producing geothermal electricity by 2005 on a site southeast of Idaho Falls. The company plans to start initial drilling in early 2004, Idatherm exploration manager Carl Austin told Con.WEB, and is optimistic about the prospective geothermal resource based on oil and gas exploration a quarter-century ago that discovered underground fluids at 480 degrees at reachable depths--well above the minimum temperatures needed for viable geothermal power production.

"My view is we have an adequate reservoir and should be able to comfortably handle 100 megawatts," said Austin, who has been engaged in the geothermal business for more than 40 years, including a key role in the 270-MW Coso Geothermal Project in eastern California.

Idatherm officials have discussed the proposal with potential utility and non-utility power buyers, Austin said. "We're not trying to develop a market at this instant. We're just letting people know what we're doing." Warren Weihing of the Idaho Energy Division described Idatherm's proposal as a "very viable project," especially given Austin's geothermal experience and knowledge.

If it reaches full production, Idatherm's project would be the Northwest's largest and possibly its first large-scale geothermal power venture. Another developer, U.S. Geothermal, is working on a southern Idaho project that could start generating power by late 2004 or early 2005 (see Con.WEB, Jan. 30, 2003). That company recently reported production estimates of 14 MW to 17 MW from existing wells at its Raft River site, with ultimate potential as high as 90 MW.

Idatherm's Geothermal Plans
Austin retired and moved to Idaho, but said he saw geothermal development opportunity amid the energy crisis. "The changing marketplace for green power is something that interests utilities now and it's [geothermal] becoming quite economic."

Austin and five others incorporated Idatherm and embarked on a search for potential geothermal sites in the Gem State.

They selected a location in northeastern Bingham County and adjoining Bonneville County where, according to IDWR, American Quesar in 1978 found 480-degree water nearly 13,000 feet underground. "That's something you can work with," said Austin.

Idatherm has leased about six square miles of state and private land in the vicinity, he said. The company plans three new drilling holes. "We expect a rig in there not later than the end of March," operating for about a year. With positive results, he said, "We'd like to build several small units, with the first binary unit or combined-cycle unit online and sending electrons down the wire sometime in 2005."

Although Idatherm is not yet actively marketing geothermal power, potential purchasers include Bonneville Power Administration, PacifiCorp, Idaho Power, Idaho Falls Power or "any one of 15 or 20 small outfits," said Austin. "The power could be moved a lot of places." A transmission line from Palisades Dam runs nearby, according to IDWR.

Austin expects to produce power at an "economical" price, but he declined to share details. The U.S. Department of Energy Web site said geothermal prices range from 4 cents per kilowatt-hour to 8 cents/KWh.

"Depending on what we find in those first three drill holes, we will go out and look for the best deal for us, and it has to be a good deal for the state; it's largely state land," Austin said. "And it has to be something that is satisfactory under the law to a utility or individual developer."

Asked whether the project could qualify for mandatory power purchases at an established price under the federal Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA), as allowed in Idaho for projects up to 10 MW, Austin said, "We're looking very carefully at what size we want to be, how far apart things need to be to satisfy the law."

Idatherm hope to complete the project entirely with private capital, he said.

Idatherm plans an air-cooled geothermal project that would consume no groundwater, according to Austin.

An Idatherm environmental contractor has scouted the site, and reported no endangered or threatened species, or wetlands, according to Austin. "At this stage of the game we have seen nothing that we'll run into an environmental difficulty." He described the site as "a very remote, rural area," with a few distant homes and some use by snowmobilers.

"We've had no negative responses from anyone," Austin said.

Promising Venture
IDWR's Weihing thinks the Idatherm venture has promise. Although not privy to the project's financial information, he said it takes "a lot of money and a pretty good business plan" to drill 12,000 feet deep. He said Austin "had a viable idea of the resource and he had a viable idea of what it takes to develop that resource. And the third thing, he has done it in California before."

Weihing's conclusion: "He's legit This is a very viable project."

Idatherm also benefits from earlier underground exploration, a lack of which has hampered Northwest geothermal development, according to executive director Karl Gawell of the Geothermal Energy Association, a national trade group. When large companies were looking for geothermal locations in the 1970s, he told Con.WEB, "Nobody really looked at the Northwest. Prices were too cheap for power."

In addition, he said, early geothermal prospectors struck many dry holes in the Northwest because "they misunderstood the geology. There's an overburden layer of rock that distorts your geological signals in the Northwest. Over time we understand it better, but in a lot of the early work people got frustrated and spent money and walked away from it."

Geothermal development requires significant investment in geological studies and other initial activities, he said.

Although not talking specifically about Idatherm, Gawell also said air-cooled projects are preferable in the arid West.

He noted "a lot of potential" for Northwest geothermal power. Expansion of the federal production tax credit to geothermal would help, as would more work in identifying potential sites that don't pose major conflicts.

Mark Ohrenschall
Proposed 100-MW Geothermal Plant Bubbling in Southeastern Idaho
Con.Web - August 28, 2003

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