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Interior Department To Open 190 Million Acres to Geothermal Power

The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) announced last week that it plans to make more than 190 million acres of federal land in 12 western states available for geothermal energy development. DOI's Final Geothermal Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) identifies 118 million acres of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and 79 million acres of National Forest System lands that could be opened to future geothermal leasing, potentially leading to 5,540 megawatts (MW) of new geothermal power capacity by 2015.

The PEIS excludes wilderness areas, wilderness study areas and national parks. It will amend 122 BLM land use plans to allow for geothermal development, while allowing the Forest Service the discretion of evaluating geothermal leasing and considering whether to amend its land use plans.

The document also includes site-specific environmental analyses for 19 pending geothermal lease applications for seven sites in Alaska, California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. The plan will take effect via a Record of Decision, which will not be issued until the governors of the 12 states — Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming — are able to review the document and resolve any conflicts with state plans, programs or policies.

The Interior Department's estimates of potential geothermal power production may actually be low, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). In late September, the USGS released its first assessment of geothermal resources in more than 30 years. The study found that identified geothermal resources in the West could produce 9,057 MW of power, while another 30,033 MW of power could be generated from conventional geothermal resources that have not yet been discovered.

The use of Enhanced Geothermal Systems, which involves creating or expanding a geothermal resource through the high-pressure injection of a fluid, opens another 517,800 MW to potential development. For comparison, the U.S. currently has an installed geothermal power capacity of about 2,500 MW.

One example of a company willing to explore new resources is Ormat Technologies Inc., which has secured 15 of the 16 tracts offered for lease on Mount Spurr, Alaska, an active volcanic region about 75 miles west of Anchorage. Ormat is also working with DOE on a project to produce geothermal power using hot water from a producing oil well. Ormat recently validated the feasibility of the technology at the Rocky Mountain Oil Test Center near Casper, Wyoming.

In recent weeks, geothermal power development in Utah has hit several milestones. Raser Technologies Inc. announced last week that it has completed major construction of its Thermo geothermal plant, the first commercial geothermal power plant built in Utah in more than two decades. The 10-MW facility combined 50 modular, low-temperature PureCycle power units from UTC Power, which meant that power plant construction could be completed in just a few months.

Utah is also slated to host a new 100-MW geothermal power plant, to be located on lands owned by the Northwest Band of the Shoshone Nation. LotusWorks, an Irish company, will work with Meridian Clean Fuels and the tribal-owned Shoshone Renaissance LLC to develop the plant. Drilling has begun for the first 32-MW phase of the project, scheduled for completion in mid-2010, followed in successive years by the second and third phases of the project.

The Shoshone Renaissance plant will likely be the first geothermal power project located on tribal lands in the United States. Power from the first two phases will be sold to Riverside Public Utilities in Riverside, California.

This article was first published in the U.S. Department of Energy's EERE Network News and was reprinted with permission.

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