Forest Service Considers Thousands Of Acres For Geothermal Leasing

Geologists Dave Tucker (left) and Pete Stelling (right) at the Mount Baker hot springs in Washington's Cascade Mountains. The Forest Service says the springs will not be disturbed, but they are within the large tract of federal land that could one day be open for geothermal development.Ashley Ahearn
Geologists Dave Tucker (left) and Pete Stelling (right) at the Mount Baker hot springs in Washington’s Cascade Mountains. The Forest Service says the springs will not be disturbed, but they are within the large tract of federal land that could one day be open for geothermal development.
Ashley Ahearn


By Ashley Ahearn, KUOW

The volcanic ridges of the Cascades have long been poked and prodded by people who want to know what kind of geothermal energy they’ll find beneath the surface.

But many of the Northwest’s hot spots are on public lands. And in some cases, federal land managers have prevented access by companies seeking to convert that magmatic force into clean electricity.

That could soon change. The U.S. Forest Service is pursuing plans to make more than 80,000 acres in Washington’s Mt. Baker/Snoqualmie National Forest available for lease to energy companies. A final decision on that is expected as early as this month.

Companies wanting to develop geothermal power on federal lands would then undergo a full environmental review for each proposed project. Those studies would take into account the potential seismic risk,  vehicle traffic and transmission lines that could be associated with a geothermal power plant.

The development of geothermal power is under way in some parts of the Northwest, which the industry regards as a new frontier. Within that clean-energy frontier, Mount Baker is an outpost sentinel on its northern edge. Its steaming crater and the hot springs on the mountain’s eastern flanks are drawing attention from would-be geothermal developers.

Using steam from deep beneath the earth’s surface to spin turbines and generate electricity is not a new idea. But as more and more renewable energy comes on line, geothermal delivers in a way that intermittent sources like wind and solar do not: it provides a consistent source of what industry insiders call “baseload” power. That’s appealing to utilities like Snohomish PUD.

“A baseload renewable resource is something to treasure. We view it as a very attractive possibility,” said Adam Lewis with the Snohomish Public Utility District. The district has spent $5 million researching geothermal developments in Washington and is interested in building a traditional geothermal plant in the Mt. Baker/Snoqualmie National Forest to power roughly 20,000 homes.

The Forest Service’s move has raised concerns about negative impacts on natural ecosystems. Fifteen conservation groups have submitted a joint lettercommenting on the service’s proposed lease.

“We should be looking at everything but is this really where we need to be looking and if we are, we need to be real careful going up into wild rivers or intact forests,” said Tom Uniack, Conservation Director for Washington Wild.

The groups pushed for stronger protections on rivers and roadless sections of the forest, as well as certain forested areas that provide old growth habitat for northern spotted owls and marbled murrelets — two bird species that are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

How big is the Northwest’s geothermal potential?

California leads the world in geothermal power generation. Development has also grown in Nevada and Utah, but the Northwest lags behind.

Despite the region’s iconic volcanoes that rise up from the Cascade Range through Oregon and Washington, the geothermal potential in the region varies greatly. In Washington, hot spots appear to be limited to areas immediately surrounding volcanoes like Rainier and Baker.

Less than 5% of the total hydrothermal heat discharge from the Cascades occurs north of latitude 45N, according to research from the US Geological Survey. Less than 5% of the total hydrothermal heat discharge from the Cascades occurs north of latitude 45N, according to research from the US Geological Survey.  USGS

Research from the U.S. Geological Survey shows extensive hydrothermal heat discharge in large stretches of the Cascades in Oregon, an indication of geothermal potential, particularly in the state’s southern and eastern stretches. But those heat signatures drop off as you head north of Mount Jefferson and the Three Sisters peaks.


In Washington, the places that could provide geothermal power appear to be even scarcer. Steve Ingebritsen, a geologist with USGS, found that less than 5 percent of the total hydrothermal heat discharge from the Cascades occurs north of the Oregon/Washington border.

“Maybe that’s because the high rainfall and snowfall and snowmelt and fractures near the surface are allowing the water to percolate down and mask the geothermal indicators we’d be looking for,” said Pete Stelling, a geology professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham. “But we don’t really know. We’re still on the hunt right now.”

The Washington Department of Natural Resources has analyzed temperatures in more than 450 wells around the state and found similar results.


The Washington Department of Natural Resources has analyzed more than 450 wells to chart subterranean temperatures around the state.


But that doesn’t mean it’s game over in the pursuit of geothermal energy in the Evergreen State.

“Although the geothermal potential of Washington is lower than other West Coast states, such as Nevada, Oregon and California, there are still areas of relatively moderate to high potential,” said Dave Norman, state geologist with DNR.

The DNR sampling highlighted hot spots at Mount Baker and the Wind River area as the best places for further geothermal exploration in Washington. (You can look at their mapped well data here.)  There are currently no geothermal electricity generating plants in operation in the state.

In Oregon, geothermal energy provides heat for the city of Klamath Falls but geothermal electrification plants are still few and far between, despite a more extensive geothermal resource than that of Washington. There are two plants in operation – a small one in Klamath Falls at the Oregon Institute of Technology and another 30.1MW facility in Malheur County, which borders Idaho and Nevada.

Seattle-based company, AltaRock is piloting new hydroshearing geothermal technology at the Newberry Crater in Central Oregon, where the Forest Service has already issued a 53,000 acre lease in the Deschutes National Forest.


A scene at Mount Baker Hot Springs, where litter and personal belongings can be found scattered on the ground.
A scene at Mount Baker Hot Springs, where litter and personal belongings can be found scattered on the ground. Ashley Ahearn


Retreating to nature vs. harnessing nature

Orange peels, beer bottles and discarded bras and bathing suits litter the Mount Baker Hot Springs when Dave Tucker, co-director of the Mount Baker Volcano Research Center, and Western Washington University’s Stelling arrive. This area is a hot spot for local college students as well as geothermal energy researchers.

“104.1, 104.3,” Tucker reads temperatures (in degrees Fahrenheit) off his sensor. A broken bottle crunches under his boot. “It’s not, certainly you wouldn’t generate any power from this thing but it’s an indicator that hot water can reach the surface here.”

The springs are within the area of national forest currently under consideration for potential geothermal leasing, though the Forest Service says that any development near the springs would undergo a comprehensive review and the springs would not be disturbed.

The faint rotten egg smell and warm surface temperatures in this pool are enough to interest energy companies and utilities in exploring this area further.

A few hundred yards up the hill from where the geologists scrutinize mineral deposits and algae growth around the murky pool, a tent peeps out of the trees. Four college students groggily make breakfast on their camp stove.

“Does anyone want bacon?” asks Nathan Sundyne, a student at Western Washington University.

Samantha Miller sits in a camp chair nearby.


Samantha Miller and Paul Bikis, students at Western Washington University, enjoy the Mt. Baker hot springs. “I think it’s cool the idea of harnessing natural energy," Miller said, "but if it really compromises the integrity of the area that would be kind of sad.”
Samantha Miller and Paul Bikis, students at Western Washington University, enjoy the Mt. Baker hot springs. I think it’s cool the idea of harnessing natural energy,” Miller said, “but if it really compromises the integrity of the area that would be kind of sad.” Ashley Ahearn


“I think it’s cool, the idea of harnessing natural energy like that,” she says.  “But if it really compromises the integrity of the area that would be kind of sad.”

“Do we destroy the habitat we have, that we get to sit around and enjoy, for energy for more houses and development – growth for the sake of growth?” Paul Bikis, a fellow student asks. “Or do we want to preserve the places that we cherish?”

As Tucker and Stelling hike out of the hot springs area, Stelling pauses to pick up a discarded beer bottle.

“People say ‘no [geothermal development] –  it’s so pretty here,’ and then they leave this mess around,” Stelling said, frustration in his voice. He acknowledges that harnessing geothermal power does come with some local environmental impacts, but he says that we can no longer afford to be “hamstrung” by the “not in my backyard” approach to new clean energy projects.

“If we want to save the environment and be the environmentalists that we hope that we are, then we need to consider what we’re doing on a bigger scale.”

Report: Climate Change Likely To Reduce Hydropower In The Northwest

A new climate report projects reductions in hydropower of up to 20 percent by 2080. | credit: Sam Beebe Ecotrust/Flickr
A new climate report projects reductions in hydropower of up to 20 percent by 2080. | credit: Sam Beebe Ecotrust/Flickr


By Cassandra Profita, OPB

A national report released Tuesday says climate change will make it increasingly difficult for the Northwest to generate hydropower and protect salmon at the same time.

The Northwest gets 75 percent of its electricity from dams. As climate change reduces summer stream flows, the Northwest Climate Assessment report says the result will likely be less hydropower production from those dams – with reductions of up to 20 percent by 2080.

The reductions would be necessary to preserve stream flows for threatened and endangered fish, according to Amy Snover, director of the Climate Impacts Group and co-lead author of the Northwest report. Snover says with climate change leaving less water in rivers during the summer, what’s left will have to be divided between storage for hydropower and flows for fish.

“It will be increasingly difficult to meet the two goals of producing summer and fall hydropower and maintaining sufficient flows in the river for protected and endangered fish,” she said. “You can reduce some of the negative impacts on hydropower production but you can’t do that and maintain the fish flows.”

Snover says her report’s projections are based on the way the Northwest operates hydroelectric dams right now. But that could change. Regional power managers say climate change is leading them to reconsider how they will operate dams in the future.

John Fazio, an analyst with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, says climate change is going to shift demand for electricity in the region, too.

Winters will be warmer, so people will need less power than before at a time of year when there’s lots of water in the rivers. And as summers get hotter, there will be more need for power to cool people off at a time of year when there’s less water available to generate hydropower.

Fazio has been thinking about the best way to manage the hydro system under these climate change scenarios. He’s suggested using other sources of power in the winter to make sure the system’s reservoirs are full of water by summertime.

“My suggestion would be during the summer we could pull more water from reservoirs to make up for decrease in summer flows and then going into the winter, use generation from other sources to meet our (power) loads and let the reservoirs refill,” he said.

Fazio’s ideas are outlined the council’s latest 20-year plan for meeting the region’s demand for power.

“It would call for a change in the whole approach to how we operate the hydro system,” Fazio said. “So far it hasn’t gotten any traction anywhere. It’s a complicated issue, but we’re trying to tackle it.”

Bonneville Power Administration, which manages 31 dams in the Columbia River Basin and distributes most of the electricity in the Northwest, has been pondering the issue of climate change as well. It’s developed a road map for adapting to climate change and launched pilot projects to model the effects of climate change on stream flows in the Columbia River Basin.

Navajo Families Live With Electricity For First Time

Margie Tso and her husband, Alvin, at their family ranch.Credit George Hardeen
Margie Tso and her husband, Alvin, at their family ranch.
Credit George Hardeen


By Aaron Granillo, KNAU


Turning on the lights or opening the fridge are things many of us take for granted. But if you’ve never had electricity, they might seem like luxuries. Now, for dozens of families on the Navajo Nation, those luxuries are becoming a reality. As Arizona Public Radio’s Aaron Granillo reports, more than 60 families will soon have electricity for the first time in their lives.

Margie Tso has a beautiful view from her family ranch on the Navajo Nation, just southeast of Page.

“I have been living out here since 1952,” said Tso.

The view from the Tso’s ranch of LeChee Rock, a sacred mountain to the Navajo people.
Credit Aaron Granillo


From her front yard, you can see miles and miles of red and orange sandstone. And LeChee Rock, a sacred mountain to the Navajo people. But from the backyard, there’s a clear view of the Navajo Generating Station, which has been supplying electricity all over the southwest since 1976. But not to Tso’s house.

“At times we kind of grumbled about it, but what could we do? I was brought up in the same matter that I learned to deal with,” said Tso. “Building a fire out of wood, using the charcoal for everything. Making bread, cooking meat, making stew, and such and such.”

But all of that has changed because of a nearly $5 million joint project that’s bringing electricity to certain areas of the Navajo Nation, including Tso’s ranch.

“It’s sort of a miracle for people to live like that,” said Tso. “Flip on a light. Get your remote. Your pleasure’s right there before you.”

Smoke stacks at the Navajo Generating Station can be seen from the Tso’s ranch.
Credit Aaron Granillo


Although the Navajo Generating Station has been producing electricity for decades, it’s not legally allowed to provide power to the Navajo Nation. That ownership and sovereignty belongs to the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. But according to officials, they’ve never had enough money to build power poles in remote parts of the reservation. That is until now.

“The Navajo Generating Station and SRP donated about $2 million. NTUA donated some,” said Paul Begay, a business information technician with NGS.

Additional funding came from the Navajo Nation Abandoned Mine Lands program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. By 2015, the project will bring electricity to 63 families.

“The first thing people mention is refrigerator. ‘Oh good, I’m not going to buy any more ice,'” Begay said.

Using ice to keep food fresh is what Pearl Begay did for decades. She lives just up the road from Tso’s ranch. Pearl only speaks native Navajo, so her daughter, Daisy, translates.

“She said she like her electric. The lights mostly, and her refrigerator.” said Daisy.

According to Daisy and Pearl, they should have had power a long time ago. They claim they were promised electricity nearly 40 years ago, while the Navajo Generating Station was being built.

“They built the plant right there, and they forget them,” said Daisy.

Their neighbor, Margie Tso, feels the same way.

“They started giving us hope, giving us hope,” said Tso. “And then they say, ‘It’s going to cost too much.’ And so then I just lost hope. I thought, ‘Well, whatever. I guess I won’t have electricity at the ranch.’”

But now that she does, life has become much easier.

“(It will) be quicker to do things than trying to hook up this and that, or run out of gas and run to town to get more gas,” said Tso. “A miracle happened that it came through.”

Potawatomi Break Ground on Biogas Plant—Converting Food Waste to Electricity

 Rendering of the Forest County Potawatomi Community's renewable generation facility (
Rendering of the Forest County Potawatomi Community’s renewable generation facility (

Source: Indian Country Today Media Network

By this time next year, the Forest County Potawatomi Community-owned FCPC Renewable Generation, LLC is anticipated to complete its food waste-to-energy facility in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The company recently broke ground on the copy8.6 million renewable energy facility in the Menomonee Valley that will convert liquid and solid food wastes to biogas through an anaerobic digestion process. The biogas will fuel two 1-megawatt generators to produce a total of approximately 2 megawatts of gross electrical power output—enough electricity to power about 1,500 homes. The power will be sold to WE Energies, the local electrical utility.

The “Community Renewable Energy Deployment” project, better known as CommRE, is being developed one block west of Potawatomi Bingo Casino on tribal land.

Construction of the facility is expected to create nearly 100 construction jobs at its peak and an additional five full-time jobs after completion.

“This project is an example of how renewable energy projects can benefit both the environment and the local economy. It will not only keep waste from our landfills, but also provides opportunities to partner with other local businesses and industries,”  Jeff Crawford, attorney general for the Forest County Potawatomi Community, told the Milwaukee Community Journal. “We hope that this project will allow others to see the many benefits that small-scale renewable energy projects can bring to communities.”

Beyond the renewable energy facility, the Tribe is also currently developing a $36 million data center on the Concordia Trust property on Milwaukee’s near west side and a copy50 million, 381-room hotel adjacent to Potawatomi Bingo Casino in the Menomonee Valley.

“The Forest County Potawatomi have called Milwaukee home for hundreds of years,” said Crawford. “We are proud of our ongoing investments in the area which help make Milwaukee, and Wisconsin, an even better place live and do business.”



Everett potential site for tidal-power turbine plant

An Irish company building turbines for the Snohomish PUD visited Everett to discuss the potential for a plant here.

Snohomish County PUDThis artist's rendering shows the tidal energy turbine Snohomish County Public Utility District plans to test to determine if tidal energy is a viable source of electricity.
Snohomish County PUD
This artist’s rendering shows the tidal energy turbine Snohomish County Public Utility District plans to test to determine if tidal energy is a viable source of electricity.

By Bill Sheets, The Herald

An Irish company that builds tidal-power turbines is exploring the possibility of locating a plant in Western Washington — possibly in Everett.

Representatives of OpenHydro of Dublin visited Everett last week to discuss their technology with political and business leaders from Snohomish County, the region and the state.

The Snohomish County Public Utility District has applied with the federal government for a license to start an experimental tidal-power project in Admiralty Inlet between Fort Casey State Park and Port Townsend.

If the $20 million project is approved — a decision could come this summer — the PUD would buy two turbines from OpenHydro.

A majority interest in the Irish company was recently bought by DCNS, a maritime manufacturer based in Paris. OpenHydro will retain its name as a subsidy of the French company, according to an announcement by DCNS.

The PUD arranged the meeting in Everett, said Steve Klein, the utility’s general manager.

“They wanted to meet with the movers and shakers in the economic development community in Puget Sound,” he said.

Among those who attended the meeting at the PUD’s headquarters were Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson; Rick Cooper, chief executive officer of the Everett Clinic and chairman of Economic Alliance Snohomish County; state commerce director Brian Bonlender, and Sheila Babb from U.S. Sen. Patty Murray’s office.

OpenHydro, in business since 2004, has installed turbines off the Orkney Islands in Scotland; the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, Canada, and near Brittany in France.

The company is planning new projects in the Orkneys and off the northern coast of Ireland, OpenHydro chief executive officer James Ives said in an email.

Now, the company sees Pacific Northwest waters as a good potential source of tidal power.

“As the turbine manufacturing requirements are of a large scale, OpenHydro plans on assembling all turbines as close to the deployment locations as possible,” he said.

Ives said the company is impressed by Snohomish County’s high-tech industry, including, but not limited to, Boeing.

“The region’s long history of high-specification engineering means that the skills, supply chain and infrastructure necessary to support this type of manufacturing activity are clearly available,” he said.

Stephanson said he made a pitch for Everett in particular.

“I just wanted to make sure they knew we had a nice deep-water port,” he said.

Ives said tidal turbines, electrical equipment and the steel base foundations for the turbines would be manufactured at the new plant. He estimated 300 jobs would be directly created and 600 spinoff positions would result from a plant turning out 100 generators per year.

In addition to tidal-power turbines, DCNS is experimenting with other technologies, including floating wind-turbine platforms, ocean-wave energy and a system that converts temperature changes in the ocean into energy, according to the company’s website.

Stephanson said he’s excited about the tidal-power technology in particular.

“It’s one more very positive opportunity for our part of the world, for growing the economy and jobs,” he said.

Cooper of the economic group said he was impressed by OpenHydro’s presentation.

“This is cutting edge stuff,” he said.

Cooper said plenty of good words were put in for Snohomish County.

“This was more a matter of establishing relationships and introducing people in the region,” he said. “I think the initial contacts have been made. We wanted to convey a welcoming presence, and I think we were successful in doing that.”

In the PUD’s project, the turbines would be placed in a flat area 200 feet underwater. Each circular turbine resembles a giant fan, sitting about 65 feet high on a triangular platform with dimensions of about 100 feet by 85 feet.

Together, the two turbines would generate about enough power for 450 homes at peak output. If the project goes well, the system could grow, PUD officials said.

The project is opposed by three Indian tribes, a cable company and a cable trade group.

The tribes, including the Tulalips, say the turbines could interfere with fishing. The cable interests believe the project could damage trans-Pacific cables that run through the inlet.

The turbines would be placed about 575 and 770 feet from fiber-optic cables owned by Pacific Crossing of Danville, Calif. The cables extend more than 13,000 miles in a loop from Harbour Pointe in Mukilteo to Ajigaura and Shima, Japan, and Grover Beach, Calif.

A federal study recently concluded the project would not affect fishing or the cables.