Geothermal Power Offers a Hot Hand Up

[imgbelt img=masonthumb.jpg]Geothermal power is available to all Earthlings, but finding the right spot for a full-scale electrical plant takes a long drill, a lot of money, and luck.


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Professor Lidenbrock (played by James Mason, center, in a 1959 movie) journeyed to the center of the Earth through a volcano. Geologists in Utah take another route.

When I decided to visit the Blundell Geothermal Plant in southwestern Utah, I realized I’d need to educate myself a bit about the goings on in the earth below my feet — far below, deep inside the planet.

Like a true humanities scholar, I turned to Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. (Only the real Verne could erase James Mason, Arlene Dahl, Pat Boone, and that ridiculous goose of the classic movie from my mind.) And so I left Wyoming for southwestern Utah with the monomaniacal Professor Lidenbrock along for the ride.

Rather than journeying as he did, by climbing down the vent of an inactive Icelandic volcano, I got on I-70 and headed for its western terminus, just north of Beaver. Utah’s I-70 takes the traveler along the longest stretch of that interstate with no services, where exits are for viewing scenery or for testing the brakes of potentially runaway trucks. At a point about 30 miles west of Green River, Utah, is the San Rafael Swell, a giant dome-shaped anticline of sandstone, shale, and limestone. Infrequent but powerful flash floods have eroded the sedimentary rocks into valleys, canyons, gorges, mesas and buttes – the very sort of scenery most of us picture when we think “Utah!” 

The Blundell plant is about 15 miles northeast of Milford. I followed directions emailed to me by Garth Larsen, plant manager in charge of operations. I thought I’d be able to throw the directions away and use the tall cooling towers and transmission lines I expected to see to guide me in. But none of these things was visible. Instead, I drove along a gravel road through Bureau of Land Management (BLM) desert, past a wind farm under development, and over some railroad tracks. The thin traffic became non-existent save for a water truck dampening the dusty gravel. I could not see the plant – only the Mineral Mountains, with Granite Peak rising 9,771 feet above sea level in the bright morning sun.

I was a few hundred yards away from the plant when the road curved toward the gated entrance and I could finally see the structure. Blundell’s cooling towers are not particularly tall and there was only one power line leading away from the plant toward town. The main buildings were painted a shade known as “BLM Desert Tan,” blending in with their rocky surroundings. The entrance gate was locked. I could only see a few vehicles in the parking area and no one out moving around. I’d been instructed to dial the phone number printed on the phone box and someone would let me let inside. I dialed the number. I got the answering machine. What would Professor Lidenbrock do?

I waited a few more minutes, dialed again, and much to my relief was greeted and let into the facility. Soon Rene (pronounced REEN) Andrews, Blundell’s operations supervisor, came out to greet me. Andrews is not a tall man but sturdy, one who looks like he’s taken good advantage of the Utah outdoors lifestyle. After outfitting me with hardhat, earplugs and safety glasses, he explained how the Blundell plant came to be located where it is.
The site lies on the Roosevelt Hot Springs Known Geothermal Resource Area (KGRA). There were once hot springs here, popular with settlers, miners and cattlemen who needed a place to wash up and relax. (Reportedly, there used to be a brothel here operated by a woman known as “Negro Mag.”) The surface hot springs had dried up by 1966 but on occasion steam still rises from the ground nearby.

The subterranean Roosevelt Hot Springs still contains plenty of water, at more than 500°F and a pressure of 500 pounds per square inch. This hydrothermal reservoir is relatively near the surface of the earth thanks to the Opal Dome fault and the one named after Negro Mag. According to geologists, earthquakes broke up the Tertiary granite and Precambrian metamorphic rock to allow the magma-heated water to get closer to the surface.

The Energy Blog

A map of U.S. geothermal resources (note that western Utah is red hot).
Even with these advantages, there is a good reason that such as small percentage of U.S. energy comes from geothermal resources. Currently about seven percent of electricity in the U.S. comes from renewable sources, according to the Energy Information Administration, and geothermal makes up only five percent OF THAT seven percent. An initial problem is that not every location has relatively shallow geothermal resources near tectonic plates, like the Roosevelt Hot Springs. But the GEA reports that up to 3959.7 megawatts of new geothermal power plant capacity is currently under development in the United States. States with projects currently under consideration or development include Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. 

Geothermal power doesn’t have to be confined to areas where volcanoes rise, where hot springs bubble, or where earthquake faults lurk. Many individuals heat their residences with hot water heat from the ground, using geothermal heat pumps. Anyone whose home is built on the earth might be able to drill a well and use the globe’s warmth to heat the air in their home and their household water, too.

As I headed back through the desert, mesa and canyons of Utah, pointing myself back to the high basin terrain of Wyoming, I thought I heard Professor Lidenbrock’s voice echoing through the San Rafael Swell. He was planning how to get out of the center of the earth alive even though he was surrounded by boiling lava and was completely lost. “The situation is virtually hopeless, but there exists a possibility of salvation, and it is that possibility which I am examining. If we may die at any moment, we may also at any moment be saved.”

Perhaps geothermal power, if not capable alone of saving us from a future energy crisis, can at least give us a hand up.

Julianne Couch lives in Laramie, Wyoming. Her story is based on work supported by the University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources through its Matching Grant Fund Program.