Getting Reno geothermal plant online a 58-mile saga

Bringing the new 25-megawatt North Valley geothermal plant online at the end of April marked the culmination of several years of permitting and development work for Ormat.

Bringing the new 25-megawatt North Valley geothermal plant online at the end of April marked the culmination of several years of permitting and development work for Ormat.

Bringing the new 25-megawatt North Valley geothermal plant online at the end of April marked the culmination of several years of permitting and development work for Ormat, but the real challenge for the Reno-based geothermal developer came in routing that power to the NV Energy grid.

Ormat had to construct more than 58 miles of transmission line through some of the most remote, arid and inhospitable mountains in the Silver State, as well as build a new substation, in order to connect the North Valley facility to the NV Energy power grid.

Ormat had an existing transmission line running from its nearby San Emidio geothermal project, which lies about 15 miles south of Gerlach, but it had to “beef up” the line to utility-grade specifications to increase capacity, said Paul Thomsen, Ormat’s vice president of business development. In addition to constructing a higher-capacity transmission line, Ormat also built an entirely new substation that it will eventually turn over to NV Energy.

“The timing was difficult,” Thomsen said. “(NV Energy) didn’t want to do a lot of these major upgrades for another five years, but we wanted to get this power plant online, so Ormat bore the cost of upgrading some substations and building transmission lines.”

Thomsen told NNBW that Reno-based Qualus (formerly Tri Sage Consulting) was instrumental in developing a new route for the upgraded power line. The Qualus team had to work within existing NV Energy easements, pick a path through the Truckee Range mountains and parallel the existing transmission line in places. Ormat also worked closely with the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe to verify that the geothermal resources the company was tapping did not include any potential resources located on tribal lands.

“There were a ton of lease and landholders we had to negotiate with, but we were able to pull this off and build this line,” Thomsen said.

“It made my beard grayer quicker,” he added with a rueful grin. “We took a lot of risk to build that power plant while we were also building and problem solving on that transmission line. I can’t commend our lands and permitting team enough – pulling off that 58-mile transmission line while we were also doing the power plant is what separates Ormat from other geothermal developers. It all came together beautifully to bring this power plant online.”

Jim Bengochea, engineering manager for Qualus, told NNBW that technology played a major role in overcoming the logistical challenges posed by the extreme ruggedness of the Truckee Range.

The Qualus team used Google Earth during the initial planning stages to determine a route for the transmission line. An existing 500-kilovolt transmission line that runs from Oregon to Southern California provided easy access in some spots, Bengochea said.

“We tried to parallel that line as much as we could,” he said. “It really helped dictate the location of the line and minimize new access in that rugged terrain.”

Once Qualus established a preliminary route, its survey crew put boots on the ground to stake out points for lidar, light detection and ranging that’s shot from a plane, to follow as it gathered important terrain and vegetation data.

“When you are designing a line, lidar really gives you a good picture of what you are up against,” Bengochea said. “It also gives you aerial photos so you know what’s going on and you don’t have to spend your life in a truck. Technology is really handy.”

Survey crews also used their cell phones and video calls to discuss problematic areas and make instant adjustments in the field, he added. Once the route was established and designed, and all structures and new roads were located, the project had to be permitted through the Bureau of Land Management.

Once NV Energy absorbs the new transmission line and infrastructure as “system resources,” it will pay Ormat for its construction costs, Thomsen said. Cost to build the power line was about $28 million, he noted. Costs for building out a new geothermal project typically range between $4 million and $5 million per megawatt, he added, which places the total cost of the North Valley facility at around $150 million. The facility is expected to provide enough energy each year to power more than 22,000 homes.

“It goes into the Nevada grid, and NV Energy grid is using it,” Thomsen said. “We are locked in a contract rate with very low pricing, to be blunt, for 25 years for this project. Ratepayers in Nevada will be affected less because of natural gas volatility because this power plant is operating.”

Ormat acquired the land for the North Valley project when it purchased U.S. Geothermal in 2018. After a 60-day transition period, Ormat began operating the San Emidio geothermal power plant.

Thomsen said the San Emidio region is prime for additional geothermal development due to the fault lines that run through the North Valley.

“We knew that area had expansion potential,” he said. “We started looking at potentially drilling additional wells there because we knew there was a prolific resource, and we also started permitting North Valley.”

It took Ormat approximately 18 months to construct the North Valley geothermal power plant, which employs 20 full-time workers. Thomsen said Ormat employees at San Emidio and North Valley either commute from the Fernley area or live in the North Valley and Gerlach communities.

Ormat operates a total of 16 geothermal projects in Nevada. Its facilities range in size from the large Steamboat Springs geothermal project in the hills above south Reno to smaller, remote projects like San Emidio. Thomsen told NNBW that Ormat produces around 400 megawatts of renewable energy annually from its geothermal projects and has additional contracts in place to bring on another 300 megawatts in the coming years.

“The market for geothermal has grown immensely,” he said. “California and Nevada want to see renewable penetration increase, and you need a resource that helps keep the lights on.

“When California had brownouts, it realized that with intermittent resources like solar and wind, you need to be able to back them up. That used to be with natural gas, but now (with the high cost of natural gas) geothermal is seeing huge market demand.”


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