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Tilting at Windmills: Renewable energy projects like Newberry geothermal present a quandary for conservationists 

With its ample sun for solar, wind for turbines and forest for biomass, Central and Eastern Oregon sit at the intersection of the green energy revolution.

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With its ample sun for solar, wind for turbines and forest for biomass, Central and Eastern Oregon sit at the intersection of the green energy revolution.

The area's potential for renewable energy has drawn millions of dollars in public and private investments over the last few years. It's big business in the high desert, creating hundreds of jobs and generating millions in lease revenue for landowners and taxes for cash strapped local governments.

However, renewable energy projects are bumping up against some of the region's most scenic vistas. In Eastern Oregon, a wind farm proposal on the edge of Steens Mountain, a federally protected monument, has perturbed conservationists who worked for years to protect Steens from development and overgrazing. Closer to home, the push for more domestically produced green energy has revived the effort to tap into Newberry caldera's geothermal potential, an initiative that has yielded few results to date.

The push at Newberry is part of a larger effort to reintegrate geothermal energy into our national energy strategy. An MIT study done earlier this decade looked at the potential for geothermal across the United States and found there was enough untapped but reachable energy to cover ten percent of the country's power needs by the year 2050. It's the same energy that keeps Breitenbush and so many other Oregon hot springs steaming year round, but rarely makes it all the way to the surface where it can be harnessed to spin energy generating turbines.

Researchers and regulators have long known that one of those geothermal hotspots sits right in our own backyard at Newberry National Volcanic Monument. However, efforts to tap the vast geothermal energy that sits at the base of the young shield volcano have so far been unsuccessful. At least two companies have drilled in the hopes of hitting a vein of superheated steam but came away empty handed. Rather than continue drilling in hopes of finding the elusive combination of heat and water, developers are now focusing on a different approach. Instead of looking for water, they want to bring water to the heat source, pumping it miles into the ground where it can be superheated and then piped back to the surface as steam to spin electrical turbines.

The technology known as "enhanced geothermal" is still in its early phases in the United States and could open up dozens, if not hundreds, of new lands to geothermal exploration and development. But it also presents several new challenges, including the need to divert water, which in some places is in scarce supply, to power production. Perhaps more problematic is the recent disclosure that the new geothermal technology has been linked to earthquake activity. Perhaps the most well publicized case of geothermal triggered quakes occurred in Basel, Switzerland, in 2006 on what might be considered the pilot project for enhanced geothermal. While no one was injured, the geothermal-triggered quakes caused minor damage in Basel and ultimately forced developers to abandon the project over public fears of more serious seismic activity. In all, more than 100 small quakes were attributed to the Deep Heat project in Basel. In a story published last year, The New York Times reported that AltaRock Energy, one of the partners at Newberry, failed to disclose the earthquake problems in Basel to U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) regulators as well as to the state of California where it was pursuing a similar project at an existing geothermal field north of San Francisco known as The Geysers.

Concerns over the link between enhanced geothermal exploration and development prompted the Department of Energy to prohibit AltaRock from doing any surface water injection at the Geysers until the DOE had an opportunity to prepare a new set of safety standards for enhanced geothermal operations. Before that could happen, AltaRock opted to abandon the project due to problems with the drilling rig technology. According to The Times, AltaRock had also run through its entire $6 million in federal funding for the project well before reaching the depths at which it could begin to test its geothermal systems.

Will Osborn, a geothermal veteran who has been with AltaRock since the company's founding roughly three years ago, said the problems at The Geysers were related to the condition of the existing drill holes, which in some cases were more than 20 years old. However, he acknowledged that problems at The Geysers were political as well as technical. Unlike Newberry Crater, there is a relatively significant population living in close proximity to The Geysers, many of who were concerned about the quake risk.

Still, Osborn said the risk presented by geothermal exploration is not out of line with other forms of energy exploration, including coal mining or oil and gas drilling.

"Many different processes in industry can produce induced seismicity, like building a dam or a large-scale mining operation or oil and gas production. Basically, anytime you take mass off the earth or add it back in, that can happen and geothermal is no different," Osborn said.

One of the main challenges related to seismic activity at The Geysers was not the strength of the potential disturbances but the proximity of the local population.

"They have people living just a mile or so away from the field. And they have small earthquakes, so it's irritating. It's a nuisance, that's what they define it as," Osborn said.

For environmentalists in Oregon, though, the key concerns about the project remain centered on visual and more traditional environmental impacts, such as habitat fragmentation, air pollution and water use. Yet conservationists, some of whom have been following the issues at Newberry since the dedication of the monument in the 1980s - a process that was driven in part by concerns over the potential for geothermal development within the rim of the caldera - are often quick to point out that they support renewable power and geothermal exploration. It's a matter of where and at what scale of development that's at issue, they say. In the case of Newberry, they say the potential impacts of full-scale geothermal development haven't been adequately studied to date and the track record thus far is not good. A company called CalEnergy, for example, conducted the initial exploration of geothermal on the west slope of the monument, but did little in the way of clean-up and mitigation after it was finished. Juniper Sierra chapter president Marilyn Miller has visited the abandoned drilling pads at Newberry and said she saw clear-cut areas with compacted soils, little in the way of vegetation recovery and what appeared to be a contaminated settling pond.

That kind of inattention is of particular concern given the relatively recent announcement that the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management plan to expand the amount of geothermal lease acres around Newberry in the near future as part of large scale push to significantly increase the amount of public land available for geothermal exploration.

Several environmental groups including the Sierra Club have already lodged their formal objection to the move.

At this point, however, it's not clear whether there will ever be a power plant situated at Newberry. Osborn said his company won't have a drill in place until late in 2011 at the earliest. More importantly, the funding for AltaRock's work at Newberry, including $25 million in federal stimulus dollars, is intended only to develop a demonstration project. The idea is to make Newberry a laboratory for enhanced geothermal technology that can be applied in Central Oregon, but also around the country. Asked whether his company would be interested in the actual development of that power source should the experiment succeed, Osborn said that it's possible.

After watching several developers try and fail at Newberry, Miller has her doubts. She puts the project firmly in the boondoggle category.

"I think they are just playing around up there because they got the funding. It's a way to spend money," Miller said.


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