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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

More Energy Expected To Come From Geothermal In California

 January 27, 2020 at 10:13 AM PST

Speaker 1: 00:00 Clean power from geothermal sources as long been generated in California. But the scale has been small accounting for just 4.5% of the state's energy in 2018 but geothermal is about to become a much bigger player. Thanks in part to efforts East of here near the salt and sea as part of coverage from the KPBS climate change desk. Round table host Mark Sauer interviewed Los Angeles times energy reporter Sammy Roth about his story on the expansion of geothermal energy. Here's that interview Speaker 2: 00:30 start by explaining what geothermal energy is, how it works, what advantage it has over solar and wind. Speaker 3: 00:36 So geothermal energy is this, um, is this renewable energy source that basically takes advantage of the Earth's natural heat. Uh, there are certain spots, um, mostly in the Western United States in this country and a lot of them in California where you get these naturally heated underground reservoirs. So these, you know, like, you know, 500 degrees or more times these, these underground pools, you know, deep down there where the Earth's natural heat has heated up water sources are drying water with high mineral content. And pretty much what you can do is you can drill down there and pull up this super heated fluid, um, and pull steam off of it and use the steam to turn turbine to generate electricity just like at a traditional power plant. And then you re-inject the fluid back underground. And the big difference, you know, between this and the traditional power plant is that it's, it's renewable, it's emissions free, doesn't contribute to climate change. Um, and unlike solar wind power, which are the, you know, the more well known renewable energy sources, um, this one can go around the clock 24 hours a day. Speaker 2: 01:35 It's there. Well not just when the sun is up in the wind is blowing. That's right. And the, why is it that geothermal is about to become a bigger player in California's quest for more sources of clean energy. Speaker 3: 01:45 So the, the interesting thing about geothermal and California is that it's actually been around for a long time. We've had geothermal plants out in, in the Imperial Valley by the salt and sea and then up at the geysers North of the Bay area. It's a complex up there called the geysers and we've had those operating since like the 70s and eighties. Uh, so they've been around for a long time. It hasn't been a lot of, of new geothermal development, uh, recently, especially since solar and wind got cheap because it's much more expensive to build these facilities. The reason it's coming back into Vogue now, or at least seems to be is that California has set this target of 100% emissions free energy by 2045. Uh, and you've got utilities and energy providers looking at that and looking at all of the solar on the grid that we have during the middle of the day, which all disappears at sundown. Um, and realizing that they're, they're going to need other energy sources that are carbon free, that don't contribute to climate change. And that can be there when, when solar or wind can't. Um, so what you've seen just this month is a couple of energy providers, including Imperial irrigation district, uh, signing contracts for new geothermal energy, which looks like it's going to probably lead to the, the first new geothermal plants getting built in the state and about a decade. Speaker 2: 02:58 And you that one that's near the salt and sea and there's a another one that's going to come online. And, and what's the timetable? Speaker 3: 03:05 Yeah, so the, the one-up in, in mono County sort of along the Eastern Sierra that that one looks like it's coming first. There's a contract with a couple of 'em Bay area ish power providers to do, bring that one online in, in 2021. I'm down at the salt and sea. You've got this Australian company, a controlled thermal resources that's been working on this, this project for quite a long time. They've got some, some land leased out there. Um, they're looking at a 20, 23 operating date under their contract with IID. Speaker 2: 03:34 And, uh, there could be a great potential here is as we said at the outset, um, I mean this will, uh, explain how much power we're getting from geothermal now and what, what these plants might, uh, might increase that too. And then also we really have a lot more potential beyond that, right? Speaker 3: 03:51 Yeah. So geothermal right now I'm, it's between four and 5% of California's electricity mix, which has been pretty static for a while. Um, it's never going to be everything, but there's potential for that number to go up quite a bit. Uh, you've had the, you've had the federal government, I'm looking at this actually even under the Trump administration, this just something they've been interested in putting out a report, uh, last year, which, which basically said that under, you know, an optimistic scenario for geothermal, you could get up to like 16% of the country's electricity from this resource. I don't know, you know, specifically what it could get up to in California, but you know, potentially, you know, a much higher than today. One of the big factors that's going to determine whether or not that happens is just basically technology advances. Um, there haven't been a ton of them in, in this industry recently, but there's definitely the potential to be able to tap, um, you know, some of the less, I guess the less good research as you would say, stuff that's further underground or lower temperature. Uh, you've got geothermal startups and, and um, researchers who are looking at this, trying to figure out ways to get it, stuff that's not quite as economical today and that could make a big difference if it comes through. Speaker 2: 04:58 And you, you would expect that the experience with these two new plants and what they're going to learn on that wood would spur what you're talking about in terms of more efficiencies and better ways to do it? Speaker 3: 05:08 Well, definitely the industry, if it, if it wants to have this big expansion needs to start growing again at all. I mean, the last time a new geothermal plant was built in California was in 2012, which was down at the, at the salt and sea. Um, and so, you know, and any future where this research takes off a lot, I mean you just need to start getting plants built again for sure. Speaker 2: 05:27 And might there also be a dropoff and use of natural gas cause it's relatively expensive going forward. Could you a Thermo help development help offset that? Speaker 3: 05:36 Well that's kind of the, you know, the $64,000 question in, in energy in California right now, uh, nearly half of the state's electricity still comes from natural gas, which is, uh, you know, burns cleaner than coal. But is, is still a fossil fuel. And so the big question is, uh, how do you get rid of that? How do you get that off the grid and replace it with something that's totally clean and geothermal definitely has the potential to be a one of the resources that does that address. It probably won't be everything, but that's sort of the, you know, the hope that this is one of the things that can help us get to that 100% clean energy point. Speaker 2: 06:11 And when we last spoke, it was about extracting lithium from the geothermal brine there by the salt and sea. It's one way to make the cost of a geothermal lower. Are there any other ways to make geothermal cheaper? Speaker 3: 06:25 Well, the, um, I mean the thing that really makes this more expensive than, uh, than solar and wind power, which have come down and cost so much is that it's, there's a lot of infrastructure involved. I mean, you, you have to, I mean it's like oil and gas. You've got to drill down into the ground. You've got to, you know, build traditional power plant machinery, turbine generators. Um, so it's, it's, you know, there's not an easy route to making this, this cheaper like there was with, with solar and wind. We're basically the, you know, the, the tech, the technology, just, you know, the inputs got cheaper and the overall costs came down. I, I think that, um, I mean lithium is not going to make it cheaper, potentially makes it more lucrative, which makes it easier to sell. Um, but no, I, I, I at least as far as I know, there's not an easy path right now to that Speaker 2: 07:10 and the state bill that mandates California energy that become 100% climate friendly by 2045, as you say, that's behind the, the growth in geo thermal as it stands now, are we likely to reach that goal? It's just 25 years from now. Speaker 3: 07:24 Well, it's, it's a hard to forecast 25 years into the future. Um, so far California has, uh, has achieved the goals it set out for itself that, you know, the targets thus far through 2020, um, all indications are that we're, we're on track to hit this, this target, this 2030 target, which is 60% renewable without too much trouble. Um, jury is definitely still out after that. I think a sort of, everyone agrees that you need, you know, more than, than just the technology you have today to get there. But there's a lot of promising stuff right now, this, this included that could be a part of the puzzle to get you there. So I'm, I'm, I'm not placing any bets, but there's, there's strong potential. It's a, Speaker 2: 08:02 well, I've been speaking with reporters, Sammy Roth, who covers energy for the Los Angeles times. Thanks very much. You're welcome. Speaker 4: 08:16 [inaudible] [inaudible].

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Two new geothermal plants are in the works in the state, one is in the Salton Sea area and the other is in northern California.
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