February 4, 2009

Why Aren't More Geothermal Projects Moving Forward in California?

Drilling rig under contract at the Truckhaven geothermal project in northwestern
Imperial County. (photo: David Baker, San Francisco Chronicle)

by Karl Gawell
Geothermal Energy Association

Geothermal energy produces more power in California than wind and solar combined, comprising almost 5% of the state's electricity. As the state moves forward, it will need significant new production from geothermal and other renewable technologies to meet the aggressive climate change goals set by the governor and the legislature. While there is a lot of pressure to accelerate production and a host of federal and state initiatives proposing to help, we need to make sure they are addressing all of the critical hurdles.

When I asked the question at a recent industry meeting, "Why aren't more projects moving forward in California?" the response was rather quick and direct. While I could have expected a discussion of investment problems, the slow economy, or the need to develop new technology, what I was told was: leases and permits are simply not being issued.

Here's one example I was given: a lease that won with a very substantial bid from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) almost two years ago was still waiting for a drilling permit to be issued. This particular lease is not in a pristine area, but to the contrary, it is almost totally within an existing geothermal field.

Another example was the continued delays in decision-making at one geothermal site due to off-road vehicle users. Despite completion of a full EIS, development at one new site in Southern California, known as Truckhaven, is not proceeding because leases have yet to be issued, let alone subsequent permits approved. The problem is opposition to the project from recreational off-road vehicle users who like to drive their four-wheel-drive vehicles around the area. The project is delayed while the BLM seeks to assuage their concerns.

While these two examples might just seem to be the kind of problems endemic to working on public lands, they are just the tip of the iceberg. In a state where federal and state lands play a significant role, most of the public lands have effectively been off limits for decades because the land-use plans of federal agencies simply didn't consider geothermal energy when they were prepared.

Before a lease can be issued on public lands the land-use plan for the area has to have adequately considered geothermal leasing and made a decision that the lands could be open to leasing. Also, the land-use plan has to have an adequate and up-to-date environmental analysis (EA or EIS) supporting it. Because BLM (and the FS) simply have not done their homework in the land-use plans prepared over the past 25 years, most areas in California have been de facto closed to geothermal leasing and development.

That is why in 2007 and 2008 the BLM and Forest Service prepared a Programmatic Geothermal EIS (PGEIS) to address this history of neglect. Now, as part of their Record of Decision (ROD) on this document, the Department of the Interior is amending plans in California and other western states to either allow leasing or close lands to leasing on the basis of the results of their analysis. For California, the ROD proposes to amend land-use plans in 11 California BLM planning areas to open 10 million acres to possible geothermal leasing. At the same time, the ROD will close 5 million acres in these 11 BLM planning areas to geothermal leasing.

If someone cannot obtain a lease to develop a geothermal project, there is simply no incentive to explore for or develop new resources. Now, the BLM has in place the plans and environmental documents necessary to make a decision if someone nominates BLM lands for competitive leasing. But for the past two decades, 10 million acres of public land in California with geothermal potential were off-limits due to bureaucratic oversight.

This is a lot of land and the PGEIS analysis indicated that a lot of it does have geothermal potential. Today, there are only about 50,000 acres of federal geothermal leases in production nationwide which support about 1200 MW of power capacity. So, how much geothermal potential might there be on these 10 million acres?

Let's do a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation; if ten percent of the land now open to leasing is eventually developed at the same proportion to existing leased acreage, geothermal production would increase 2000%. This is just from the lands in California — the PGEIS also made decisions for 11 other western states. And, while that sounds like a lot of land to develop, geothermal power has one of the smallest footprints of any energy technology. Only a small fraction of each lease is actually utilized for power production.

Let's get back to the question we started with: why aren't more geothermal projects moving forward in California and what needs to be done about it?

Congress and the new administration have set some high goals for expanding renewable energy production, including geothermal energy. Don't get me wrong, I think making an investment in new technology is vitally important. We need that investment. It's also exciting to see the emphasis on providing effective incentives for doubling or tripling renewable power production over the next three years. The rollercoaster of federal and state policies supporting renewable energy has unquestionably been part of the problem.

But we also need to address the bureaucratic hurdles that could stand in the way of achieving this goal. Timely decisions regarding leasing and permitting must not be ignored — they are fundamental to achieving expanded geothermal energy production in California and the West. Sometimes when I am asked what the hurdles are to moving geothermal and other renewable production forward, I feel like invoking the wisdom of the comic strip character, Pogo, who would often remark: "We have met the enemy, and them is us."