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June 8, 2008

A lava-hate relationship

Gail Kinsey Hill
Newhouse News Service
June 8, 2008

LA PINE, Ore. — For more than 30 years, geologists have boasted about the fiery depths of central Oregon's Newberry Crater, a geothermal resource said to be one of the best in the world. And public and private prospectors have drilled, measured and poked the landscape.
Still, no one has ever built a power plant near the volcano, an area of high-desert forests, shrub and obsidian flows. Money demands and environmental concerns always proved insurmountable. A large portion of the storied natural setting came under the protections of the federally designated Newberry National Volcanic Monument in 1990.
This go-round, it may be different. High energy prices and the search for clean, renewable power have returned Newberry Crater to the spotlight, where it is viewed as a potential mother lode of geothermal.
The modern-day miner is Davenport Power, a young renewable-energy company with offices in Connecticut and Bend, Ore., just 25 miles northwest of the crater. It began exploratory drilling on the volcano's western flank in April, and by year's end executives should know whether there's a sufficient brew of heat and water in deep underground fissures to justify full pursuit.
"I'm nervously optimistic," said Doug Perry, Davenport's president. "Hopefully I'll be smiling come December."
If it works out, the Newberry project could tap into 120 megawatts of electricity — enough to light up about 80,000 homes, according to company estimates. It would do that by drawing superhot water from nearly two miles down. At the surface, in a large facility on Newberry's flanks, the water would flash to steam that drives a turbine, generating electricity.
And that electricity would then be shipped to California.
Not everyone shares Perry's enthusiasm. The company's geothermal leases lie just outside the Newberry monument's boundaries and near a multitude of popular vacation haunts.
Paulina Peak rises 7,994 feet above the treed hills, about four miles from the drilling site. Paulina and East lakes rest in the caldera next to the mountain and draw scores of campers, hikers, sightseers and fishermen.
"Newberry is a very treasured place," said Asante Riverwind, who represents the Sierra Club's Juniper Group and opposes the project. The environmental organization isn't dead set against geothermal development, he said, but "this just isn't the appropriate place."
Riverwind's objections underscore a conflict certain to face any geothermal development in the West. By nature the resource lies in remote or wilderness areas, such as the Pacific Northwest's volcanic Cascade Range.
"It's an industrial activity in land not typically used for industry," said Alex Sifford, a renewable-energy consultant for the Oregon Department of Energy, one of the agencies that would review a formal development application. "If you could put geothermal at the site of the old aluminum smelter in Troutdale, that would be great, but it just doesn't work that way."
Each drill hole — there could be as many as nine — could reach as far as 10,000 feet into the ground and cost $8 million, Davenport's Perry said. If the company builds a power plant, the price tag could increase to "at least $400 million."
"They know it's a gamble," said Sifford. "But it's a calculated gamble."
So far, the company has one drill rig at a 5-acre forest clearing. It has plumbed to 4,000 feet, still too shallow to know whether it will hit paydirt.
"It doesn't get exciting until 6,000, 7,000 feet," said Brian Johnston, the project's operations manager.
Prior testing has confirmed that deep-lying magma has created temperatures in excess of 400 degrees, just what the company is after. The question is the water.
"We need water or steam so we can mine the heat," Perry said.
The superheated liquid flashes into steam at the earth's surface. The force of that expanding steam spins a turbine generate electricity.
Water is injected back into the ground to be reheated and used again. An air-cooling system would reduce the release of vapor plumes, Perry said.
Perry said the community generally supports the project. The designation of the monument in 1990 was based on an agreement between public and private interests that the federal government protect the caldera and allow exploration in nearby terrain.
"We think we can have a very low-impact plant that's a good neighbor to everybody," Perry said.
But the Sierra Club's Riverwind said federal agencies allowed Davenport to drill exploratory wells without adequate environmental assessments. His organization has appealed the Bureau of Land Management decision that allowed the drilling permits.
Some locals also are angry about Davenport's decision to sell the power to California utility Pacific Gas and Electric. Perry said he would have preferred to sign a contract with a Northwest utility but Pacific Gas and Electric offered the best deal.
Davenport would build power lines to La Pine, where high-voltage transmission owned by the federal Bonneville Power Administration would deliver the electricity south.
But first, the Davenport wells must have their eureka moment. Then, the project would face extensive review by state and federal regulatory agencies. If construction were allowed, the first megawatts would start flowing in mid-2011, Perry said.

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