Geothermal Energy Plant

DREW NASH • TIMES-NEWS Operations and maintenance manager Butch Mayfield talks about how a geothermal plant operates Tuesday afternoon, July 23, 2013 at the Raft River Energy Facility near Malta.

MALTA, Idaho • A $150 million geothermal energy facility will be built near Malta and create more than 800 jobs, thanks to positive results from months of complex drilling, a developer said Thursday.

Aguacaliente recently finished drilling its third successful production well deep into the geothermal-heated Raft River aquifer, determining that the company’s data and resources lines up with its aspirations, said Trent Yang, a company developer.

“The answer after three wells is ‘absolutely,’” he said.

Yang hopes to build a 25-megawatt power plant at Walker Ranch, a stone’s throw from U.S. Geothermal Inc.’s Raft River Energy project. That’s Idaho’s only commercial geothermal power plant, producing 10 megawatts.

Idaho ranks third among the West’s 12 states in potential for geothermal development, reports the Western Governors’ Association Geothermal Task Force.

Geologic heat under the Snake River plain produces boiling-hot water deep underground. That water reaches the surface at various area springs and can be used to heat homes, recreation or aquaculture.

But when developers look to generate electricity from geothermally heated aquifers, they must find water significantly hotter and in greater quantities. That water, called brine, usually is buried thousands of feet underground.

The 6,000-foot-deep Raft River aquifer is 280 degrees and produces thousands of gallons a minute. Outside of the Raft River Valley, however, hurdles have prevented other companies from harnessing the state’s geothermal potential.

Developing geothermal is riskier than other renewable energies. It also requires more initial capital, and much remains unknown about the state’s resource. But the payoff is immense — a reliable renewable energy source in a world of dwindling fossil fuels.

“BLM is excited (about the Walker Ranch project) because renewable energy is one of our priorities,” said Steve Lubinski, geologist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Burley field office. “Personally, it is kind of a neat thing to produce power without fossil fuels or without imposing very much natural resource damage.“

Yang said Aguacaliente knew a resource was in the area; it simply needed to drill the initial wells to prove it. So far, the quality of the resource — measured by a combination of temperature and flow rate — is as expected, he said.

“Hopefully it is not about whether the resource is there, it’s if you can hit it with drilling,” he said. “It is not like oil and gas, where it is a huge reservoir and you just stick straws in it. What we are doing is looking for fractures in the land where water can come up.“

Finding those small fractures — on the order of centimeters to feet — requires advanced technology, Yang said.

Lubinski said that’s one of the coolest things about the project.

“Things are going well, so that means the technology they used and the data they obtained is valid, and it’s cool to see that happening,” he said. “Out at Raft River, you’ve got hundreds of small fractures in the rock, if not thousands. You’ve got faults that offset different areas. And so it’s a lot more complex to try to analyze all that data and it takes a lot more (data).“

Walker Ranch will be bigger than the Raft River facility. Aguacaliente will drill more wells and make them more productive because of technological advances. In all, the company will drill up to 18 wells, but only half of them will be used for production.

“The other nine wells are what are called reinjection wells,” Yang said. “You pull the hot water out of the ground, you use the heat from the water to drive the turbine, which produces the electricity, and then you pump the water back into the ground. That’s why it’s a renewable source. So for every production well, you need an injection well.“

Drilling will continue through 2015. Yang said the company hopes to have its plant fully operational in 2016 and is confident it can finance the project. Aguacaliente now is negotiating to sell its 25 megawatts.

A recent economic analysis of the project indicates it will create “somewhere north” of 800 jobs, some permanent, others for two or three years, Yang said. Those jobs won’t be only in Idaho, but rather across the country because construction requires specialized parts, such as the unique turbine, he said.

“Unfortunately, very few firms make and produce the types of equipment we need for the plant,” he said. “We are working with as many local firms as we can during the drilling phase, and then we will source equipment locally wherever possible.“

Yang said Aguacaliente hopes to hire local staff to run the plant, but he was unsure how many permanent jobs would be created near Malta specifically.

“That’s fantastic,” said Cassia County Commissioner Paul Christensen.

Other than the City of Rocks National Reserve and agriculture, there isn’t much to support the economy in that corner of the county, Christensen said.

“We’re excited for them,” he said. “… It’s always been a great place for families to raise kids, and this will maybe create opportunities for them to stay in the area.“

Yang said Aguacaliente also plans to remain in the area. It hopes to build two or three more power plants on its Raft River land holdings, as well as building geothermal power plants in the Crane Creek area north of Boise.

“As I’ve spent time in Idaho talking to people, I think a lot of folks have always thought geothermal can be a strong industry for Idaho,” he said. “Unfortunately, it hasn’t been built out because it is very capital-intensive and a risky investment overall.

“We hope to be in Idaho long term.“

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