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Utah a hotbed for nation's geothermal growth in 2013

SALT LAKE CITY — Geothermal power that came online in Utah and two other Western states helped keep the industry on the map in 2013 in what would have otherwise been a flat year domestically for new geothermal power production.

Enel's Cove Fort geothermal plant in Beaver County began operations late last year, adding 25 megawatts of installed capacity to Utah's renewable energy portfolio.

A recent industry report by the Geothermal Energy Association shows 13 potential geothermal projects in varying stages of development in the state, mostly concentrated in a central Utah cluster.

Ben Matek, an analyst with the association, said the Utah interest eclipses that of many foreign countries.

"The resources in Utah are a good quality resource, with the vast majority of countries having less than 10 projects for potential development. Utah ranks in the top 10 for developing projects," Matek said.

The newly released report notes that geothermal resources in the tri-state area of California, Nevada and Utah remain largely untapped, with as much as 60 percent of Utah's resource, for example, ripe for development.

The Utah Geological Survey's Rick Allis agrees the potential for more development is promising.

"If you ask where the best potential is in the country, we definitely got that," said Allis, who heads up the survey.

The Utah Geological Survey has been working in conjunction with the state Office of Energy Development on a $100,000 electrical survey to assess the geothermal potential in the southern Black Rock Desert and Twin Peaks area halfway between Delta and Milford.

Completed in late April, the study now moves into its secondary phase in which the results of the measurements will be analyzed over the next couple of months.

"Bottom line is we suspect there is a very hot zone that extends between Delta and Milford (likely about 450 degrees at 10,000 feet). We know either end is hot because oil exploration wells around 1980 encountered these temperatures at depth," Allis said "We are excited to get a handle on it."

Research on the vast resource was the talk of the industry at the geothermal conference a couple of years ago, and the field continues to draw interest.

"Industry is really interested in what we are doing," Allis said. "We have had a couple of contracts from the Department of Energy to help us figure out what the geothermal potential is in this area. The size of this inferred resource is large and may be able to generate several hundred megawatts of power."

The problem is the geothermal resource is deep — thousands of feet farther under the surface of the Earth than industry is used to going, Allis said.

"We have to convince the industry of the scale of possible development and that it is economic to drill that deep," he said. "Because it is a little deeper, we have to gradually fill in the jigsaw."

Allis said the ultimate goal is to compile enough exploration data that when the timing is right for industry, they start to look seriously at the Black Rock Desert area for production.

"This is a big resource," he said.

While U.S. production of geothermal energy remains No. 1 in the world — well ahead of the Philippines and Indonesia — other countries are rapidly tapping into the resource as demand for new power sources far outstrips what is needed in the United States.

"The growth in new power demand in the United States is less than 1 percent. There is just not that much demand for new power plants," Matek said. "We see geothermal power coming on rapidly in those countries because of the demand and because of national energy policies."

Overall, the country added 85 megawatts of geothermal capacity last year, bringing the U.S. to 3,442 megawatts. A megawatt is a million watts of power, and a typical U.S. household uses 10,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity in a year.


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