June decision expected for Churchill County geothermal research lab

Caption. A drilling rig was on the project site of FORGE, Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy, southeast of earlier this year.

Caption. A drilling rig was on the project site of FORGE, Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy, southeast of earlier this year.

FALLON, Nev. — The U.S. Department of Energy is working toward a June decision to award either Fallon or Milford, Utah, an underground laboratory to conduct research on enhanced geothermal systems, business leaders learned April 11 at this month’s Churchill Economic Development Authority’s breakfast meeting.

Josh Nordquist, Ormat’s manager for U.S. Resource Operations, updated the Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy or FORGE project and how he’s hopeful the DOE will award the lab to Churchill County, while Paul Thomsen, Ormat Technology’s executive director, presented an overview on the company’s recent rebranding and history.

DOE will be selecting a location later this spring for a National Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) field laboratory. Nordquist explained an EGS field lab “produces energy by injecting and circulating water through fractured rock, then withdrawing the hot water and using it to supply a geothermal power plant.” Once the site is selected, the DOE-funded field laboratory will begin a five-year research project to study EGS.

“We have a vast heat source in the U.S., particularly in the West,” he said, adding it’s been part of people’s lives in Nevada for decades. “It’s a very important energy source.”

Nordquist said Nevada, along with California, has had success in producing geothermal energy. Several times during his presentation, he called Churchill County the center of geothermal production.

The Fallon site has plenty of room and infrastructure to support the EGS, and the Nevada Governor’s Office of Energy also contributed $1 million toward the study.

Sandia National Laboratories informed Churchill County Commissioners in November of the 1.7-square mile Fallon project, which is the Ormat site located south of Naval Air Station Fallon runway toward Macari Lane. Scores of exploration wells have been drilled, and an additional 15.4 square miles will be used for instrumentation and monitoring of FORGE activities.

Nordquist said the idea for a research lab for geothermal sites began about six years ago. The study looked at multiple sites but then narrowed the list down to Fallon and Milford.

“We started with 10 projects around the West,” Nordquist said.

DOE, with the support of the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), awarded funding to the two teams after the first phase of research to evaluate potential EGS underground research sites. In 2015, CEDA previously said the DOE narrowed its list to five sites and then to two sites in September 2016.

“The Navy and Ormat have done a lot of research on this site,” Nordquist said of the fully-funded location. “It’s been teamwork from all parties involved. It’s 100 percent transparent. This is a U.S. project, not Ormat or the Navy.”

Nordquist credited Fallon Mayor Ken Tedford for assembling people together early in the process to bring the current project to Fallon. Now, Nordquist said, the local research must convince leaders at DOE in Washington, D.C., that Fallon is the premier location for the project.

In addition to Ormat — which Thomsen called the premier binary geothermal power plant manufacturer, global provider of clean geothermal power, developer and land controlling stakeholder — Nordquist said the FORGE team includes Sandia National Laboratories as the project lead; Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Navy Geothermal Program; the University of Nevada, Reno and home of the Great Basin Center for Geothermal Energy, the Geothermal Academy and the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology; the U.S. Geological Survey, Menlo Park, the Nation’s pre-eminent geoscience research organization; GeothermEx/Schlumberger; and Itasca Consulting Group, global consulting and software developer with expertise in geomechanics, fracture modeling and EGS simulations.

Nordquist emphasized the Nevada congressional delegation has been supportive of the Fallon project since the beginning.

“Nevada is home to a world-class university and community college programs dedicated to training geologic specialists,” said U.S. Sen. Dean Heller in recorded remarks from late 2017. “Nevada is the second-most heavily geothermal installed state in the nation and has the greatest untapped geothermal potential of any state. Furthermore, we have development underway that will expand our geothermal generation portfolio nearly fivefold.”

A separate letter from Nevada delegation members to include Heller, U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto and Congressman Mark Amodei said the technology presents “an enormous opportunity to expand the market share of clean, domestically-produced, baseload power in the U.S. electricity mix.”

Nordquist pointed out the NAS Fallon location meets all FORGE selection criteria. He said the site is an excellent study area for the EGS with temperatures at about 400-500 degrees Fahrenheit at depths to about 5,000 feet. If Fallon receives the go-ahead with the research lab, Nordquist said the area will host a worldwide research facility, be the focal point of geothermal research, have businesses that will benefit from the research lab and provide educational and employment opportunities for local students.

“The end result,” emphasized Nordquist, “is this is strictly research. The best part is it’s not focused on bringing a power plant on line. It will help other developers bring their plants on line.”

CEDA executive director Nathan Strong agreed.

“This will be ground-breaking if we can get it,” he said.

Thomsen said Ormat has been branching out and has built more than 200 power plants since the company was first founded more than 50 years ago.

“We’re the most active global developer with over 450 megawatts (mw) development in the last decade,” he said.

Thomsen said within and near Churchill County, 11 projects are in the development stage and four are in operation. The 86 MW McGinness plant east of Fallon in Lander County and the 41 MW Don Campbell plant in Mineral County are in operation along with two developments, Don A. Campbell 3 and Rhodes Marsh. The McGinness Hills 3 in Lander County is under construction.

“Churchill County factors into our future developments,” Thomsen added.

According to Thomsen, Ormat is the most active developer in the United States and also globally with more than 450 MWs developed during the last decade.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated from a previous version to correctly report that the Nevada Governor’s Office of Energy contributed $1 million to the project.


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