Vast swathes of Utah’s Western Desert could be leased for geothermal power

BLM approves exploration project and issues geothermal leases on 31,000 acres in Beaver and Millard counties.

(Courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management) The BLM leases large sections of Utah’s Western Desert for geothermal energy development. Two companies recently acquired rights to 32,000 acres in Beaver and Millard counties.

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Commercial interest is heating up in Utah’s Western Desert as a potential refuge for geothermal-generated energy.

This week, the Bureau of Land Management issued leases to geothermal power developers on 32,000 acres in Millard and Beaver counties and also gave the go-ahead for exploratory drilling outside Milford.

To identify the extent of geothermal resources beneath an 1,885-acre parcel already under lease a few miles north of Milford, a company called Ormat Nevada Inc., a Reno-based subsidiary of Ormat Technologies, will build and operate up to 20 wells, according to a ruling released Friday. If the Bailey Mountain geothermal exploration project discovers a viable energy source, Ormat could then seek to build a geothermal power plant, joining the other 48 operating on land managed by BLM.

This week’s developments were announced shortly after the Biden administration unveiled an initiative to increase renewable energy generation. The White House hopes to license 25 gigawatts of generation capacity on public lands by 2025.

The Utah plans announced this week, however, were under consideration before Joe Biden was sworn in as president and announced sweeping policy changes aimed at curbing climate-altering emissions. Still, geothermal projects have strong support from Utah state officials who have praised their economic benefits to rural Utah.

“As the United States tackles climate change by transitioning to low-carbon energy resources, it is imperative that projects providing clean, affordable energy come online at a rate equal to or greater than the rate at which fossil fuel energy systems are removed,” wrote Redge Johnson, Utah’s top public lands adviser, in the state’s official comments on the Bailey Mountain project.

Since Biden’s inauguration, geothermal interests have flooded the BLM’s Utah state office with ‘expressions of interest’ to lease most public lands in the Western Desert, according to analysis by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. . In February and March alone, 357 nominations were submitted, indicating a sale date of August 1, 2023.

The Home Office allows interested parties to propose land for development, so it is not possible to know who is proposing that land or what their true intentions or capabilities are.

At a recent geothermal auction, the BLM sold development rights for an average of $71 per acre on 21,685 acres, totaling nearly $800,000. Three parcels totaling 9,791 acres failed to win bids at the auction and were subsequently sold without competing bids.

“BLM Utah is committed to processing applications and leases for renewable energy generation on public lands that provides jobs and generates electricity for our homes,” said Paul Briggs, field manager of BLM in Cedar City. “We will continue to work closely with our partners, tribes, communities and local governments to ensure that all energy development maximizes efficiency and minimizes environmental impacts for the benefit of current and future generations.”

The companies acquiring those leases are Velikan Renewables LLC, of ​​Houston, and RodaTherm Energy Corp., of Calgary, according to the BLM.

Geothermal has a few advantages over wind and solar as renewable energy in that it provides consistent “base load” energy regardless of weather conditions or time of day , and it occupies a much smaller footprint. Geothermal plants use more water than wind and solar, but not as much as gas and coal plants.

“Geothermal is a lower-cost energy source that diversifies energy supply and supports power grid stability,” Johnson said. “Over its lifetime, the average cost of a geothermal power plant is significantly lower than many traditional energy sources, reducing energy costs for consumers.”

These plants exploit hot spots closer to the surface, where magma seeps into cracks in the earth’s crust. The Great Basin has an abundance of such fissures where geothermal power plants could be located, but the optimal locations have yet to be determined.

To harness this source of energy, wells are drilled up to two miles into heat-bearing formations, with temperatures between 300 and 700 degrees. Water is channeled through hot rock and returned to the surface as steam which drives a turbine. Milford is already a renewable energy hub where geothermal and wind installations generate electrons, with major solar projects underway.

Additionally, the University of Utah oversees federally funded geothermal research at its Utah FORGE Laboratory, where geologists from the U. are exploring ways to accelerate breakthroughs in geothermal technology.

Geothermal currently accounts for less than 0.5% of the country’s electricity generation and further expansion is seen as a win for the climate. But environmental concerns have disrupted some developments in the West, where much of the country’s geothermal potential is located.

A federal judge in Nevada recently halted work on Ormat’s Dixie Meadows geothermal project after tribes and environmental groups raised objections about impacts to nearby hot springs.

But in the meantime, Ormat can explore his lease in Utah at Bailey Mountain, near Milford, where he will drill up to 20 wells. Each would be drilled from a 2-acre well pad and would require approximately 45 days of non-stop drilling to reach the 5,000-foot depths needed to assess the formation’s suitability for geothermal energy.

If Ormat’s exploration wells touched land, Utah could be more likely to see even more steam rising from emission-free power plants in its deserts.

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