Oregon college drilling for first geothermal plant

KLAMATH FALLS, OREGON - The Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls has long used the heat trapped deep in the earth from ancient volcanoes to heat dorms and classrooms, melt snow from sidewalks, and keep the swimming pool warm.

Now they are drilling deeper to tap a hotter source of geothermal energy in hopes of generating all their own electricity, saving money and cutting back its carbon footprint.

"We'll be the first campus in the world to be 100 percent geothermally powered from a resource directly on campus," crowed John Lund, director of the college's Geo-Heat Center.

That would also make OIT the first site in Oregon with a geothermal power plant, unless the city of Klamath Falls beats them to it.

The drill rig has been arriving in pieces and is expected to be set up in the middle of the main parking lot by the end of the week.

That's where seismic mapping and chemical analyses show the fault runs deep enough to produce water hot enough to run a high-temperature binary geothermal power plant, about 300 degrees at 6,000 feet.

They hope to tap enough water to generate up to 3 megawatts of electricity. In a binary power plant, the hot water goes through a heat exchanger, heating another material such as ammonia that boils at a low temperature, producing steam to turn a turbine.

Drilling is estimated to take a couple months and cost $3.9 million, of which $1 million is covered by an earmark from Congress and $1 million from the Oregon university system. Adding power plants will bring total costs to $8.5 million. They are working on more federal and state funding, as well as energy tax credits.

"There is a lot of upfront risk," said Lund. "When you are drilling a well you might not get a resource. But once you have a proven resource, you are home-free."

The payoff could be great.

OIT stands to save $500,000 a year on electricity, plus make another $200,000 a year selling the excess hot water. The plan also calls for a smaller low-temperature power plant to work off the existing campus wells, plus turning the surplus hot water through greenhouses and aquaculture ponds to be rented out to businesses thinking of locating to Klamath Falls.

"We're squeezing maximum energy out of the system," Lund said.

The school also wants to offer a degree in alternative energy, using the geothermal power plants as classrooms.

Klamath Falls has lots of geothermal power — 600 wells that heat buildings, greenhouses, sidewalks and even a brewery. The campus has been tapping it since the 1960s. So far the energy has come in around 200 degrees, with wells that go as deep as 1,800 feet.

Lund said small towns throughout Eastern Oregon could tap enough geothermal energy to run similar power plants. The heat is too deep to be tapped economically in Western Oregon, though similar resources are being tapped in Germany, where energy costs are much higher, he said.


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