Washington State taking steps to implement more geothermal energy

Skykomish River close to Skykomish in Washington State, U.S. (source: Flickr/ brewbooks, creative commons)
Parker O'Halloran 7 Jun 2017

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee has passed a bill to streamline geothermal development to increase renewables use.

While neighboring state Idaho is one of the more progressive states using geothermal energy for district heating, Washington has been lagging behind in this area. The state uses a mix of renewables including hydroelectric and wind and there are certainly many opportunities for geothermal. Washington, along with the whole western U.S. coast is part of the “Ring of Fire” and is very active geologically.

Governor Jay Inslee this year approved a bill to streamline the process for reconnaissance and experimental drilling to search for geothermal sources.

Senator Sharon Brown, the Republican who sponsored the bill, said she believes the legislation is part of the answer to increasing geothermal use in the state. “The more we can move that forward, it’s really going to help the state as a whole,” Brown said, while adding that geothermal energy is attractive because it is a renewable natural resource, like water or wind.

Washington has been slow to develop geothermal as a larger portion of its energy portfolio, partly because of complex geology that hinders reaching the hottest areas. Other western states, for example Utah and Nevada, have working geothermal power plants because it’s easier to reach their resources in the open arid areas. In contrast, Washington’s largest geothermal areas tend to be covered by thick forests that have significant rainfall, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. Access also is complicated by high elevations and rugged slopes.

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Washington is investigating a project that will extract rare earth minerals from the water that is cycled through a deep-bore geothermal systems. As the water percolates through the rock, it picks up minerals, which could then be extracted for sale or use in other technologies, such as solar panels.

One reason for the research is creating a domestic source for rare earth minerals in order to reduce reliance on the international market. China is the primary provider of rare earth right now, PNNL representatives said. Chris Brown, a PNNL research team leader whose work includes geothermal science and development, said the region has potential for expanding geothermal options. The more that can be done to reduce carbon dioxide emissions through renewable sources such as geothermal, the better, he said. “We are a power-hungry world, and particularly a nation. I think it’s an absolute necessity as part of the power production mix,” Brown said.

Source: Mark Morey. Tri-City Herald. “Geothermal technology picking up steam in Washington state” June 6, 2017.