PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — With stimulus money in hand, energy companies are looking to tap vast geothermal resources in Southeastern Oregon.
But like its geysers and subterranean hotspots, Oregon's regulations for developing utility-scale geothermal projects haven't been touched in decades.
Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality has worked with geothermal power developers to streamline its permitting process for drilling geothermal wells. Companies use wells to find out how much power can be generated from steam and hot water.
When Nevada Geothermal Power began the permitting process for wells at a site near Adel, in Lake County, it found the state didn't offer permits for the activities it needed to perform there, according to Kim Niggemann, vice president of Nevada Geothermal.
When the DEQ doesn't offer a permit for a specific activity, it issues a specialized permit, but because of extra work, it costs more.
"When you drill your geothermal well, you typically inject fluid in to find out how much fluid the reservoirs there can take," Niggemann said. "When we started permitting in Oregon, there's no permit for that. We were facing a $10,000 special permit fee per well injection for a project where you can have over half a dozen wells."
Geothermal projects under way in Oregon:
Neal Hot Springs
Newberry demonstration project
Geothermal resources could soon become more attractive in Oregon, so the DEQ is proposing a 10-year general permit that would allow geothermal companies to inject water for geothermal tests as well as dispose of that water, according to Bill Mason, groundwater hydrologist with Oregon DEQ's Eugene office. Comments are being received on the proposed permit, which could be approved early next year.
Rather than obtain multiple special permits, companies would need to obtain only the general permit, making the process quicker and more affordable. The application fee would be $481 and the cost per injection well would be around $1,300 under the new permit.
A flurry of geothermal exploration took place in Oregon prior to the 1970s, but the state has since seen no proposals for utility-scale projects, according to Anna Carter, land and permitting staffer with Nevada Geothermal. This year, however, the state has received proposals for three major geothermal projects, which use hot water and steam from heated rocks deep beneath the earth's surface to power above-ground turbines and produce electricity.
"There was a long period of time in Oregon where geothermal exploration came to a standstill because of cheap natural gas," Carter said. "The people at Oregon agencies who had some introduction to how geothermal works (retired) long ago. Now we're in an education process, both for us and the state agencies, to learn what the processes and rules are."
Mason doesn't expect to see a large number of applicants for the new geothermal general permit, but he said it's important for the state to have one. Though wind and solar developments have increased in Oregon, geothermal projects could provide reliable, clean backup power for those intermittent sources. According to the Renewable Northwest Project, Oregon has the potential to generate more than 2,600 megawatts of power by tapping into geothermal resources.
"We want to allow geothermal exploration in the state, not put up roadblocks," Mason said. "It's going to be an important part of our renewable energy portfolio."
Proper disposal of water used during geothermal well testing is particularly important, Mason said. This water often is saturated with minerals and chemicals that can be harmful to people. In Oregon, companies must let the water evaporate because there are no rules for reinjection.
"A couple companies have generated a lot of this water, which is sitting in lagoons slowly evaporating," Mason said. "They need to do something with the water, but it's not good to discharge it to streams or allow it to contaminate someone's drinking-water well. The general permit includes rules for reinjection of the water."
At first, the state was concerned about allowing polluted water to be reinjected into the earth, where it could potentially come into contact with groundwater, Niggemann said. But her company and others use a special casing underground to keep the water from entering the groundwater supply. All reinjections will be thoroughly reviewed by the Oregon DEQ to prevent threats to nearby streams and drinking water, Mason said.
Public comments on the general permit for geothermal exploration are being received by the Oregon DEQ through Jan. 7, 2011. If at least 10 people request a public hearing, one will be held after the comment period. Otherwise, the DEQ will review and respond to comments before making a decision.
Information from: Daily Journal of Commerce, http://djcoregon.com
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.