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Davis Journal

A different way to power our state

Jan 18, 2024 09:28AM ● By Braden Nelsen
The Blundell Geothermal power plant rises out of the desert, providing a clean, safe alternative power source. Photo courtesy of Utah Office of Energy Development

The Blundell Geothermal power plant rises out of the desert, providing a clean, safe alternative power source. Photo courtesy of Utah Office of Energy Development

DAVIS COUNTY—Driving past downtown Salt Lake, heading into North Salt Lake, a smell often wafts into the car. It’s not the refinery, it’s not a particularly pleasant smell, but it kind of smells like eggs. To those who frequent geothermal hot springs, this is a reminder of the now-defunct Beck’s Hot Springs, and while the resort no longer stands, the potential for something even greater remains. Hot springs like these around the world provide not only recreation and relaxation but also the potential for clean, renewable energy as well using geothermal power.

Tracy Rees, Public Information Officer, and Harry Hansen, deputy director of the Utah Office of Energy Development shed some light on the current state of geothermal power in the state, as well as the potential of where the technology could go in the near future, given the opportunity. The data is not only promising, it’s inspiring for the future of energy in Utah.

“Utah is one of seven states with the capacity for traditional geothermal power,” said Hansen, elaborating that currently, geothermal power accounts for about 7 percent of the renewable energy across the state or about 45,000 homes. For the time being, the existing geothermal plants in the state are located in the southeast, but with new developments in technology, they could be a bit closer to home. 

Traditional geothermal power utilizes water drawn from underground sources like hot springs, brought to the surface which produce steam. This steam is then utilized to drive turbines that generate electricity. This process limits the areas in which geothermal power can be used, but, the relatively new process of Enhanced geothermal power opens up the playing field significantly. 

Much like the traditional method, Enhanced geothermal utilizes existing heat from within the earth to generate steam and turn turbines, but, as opposed to the more traditional method which requires the heat to be near the surface, modern technology makes it possible to drill down deep enough into the ground to access that heat anywhere, and according to Hansen, “opens up the capability to anywhere in the world.”  

There may be some who doubt the capability of geothermal power on a large scale, but the naysayers need look no further than the country of Iceland. A turbulent volcanic island that straddles the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, the Icelandic people have harnessed that turbulence into sustainable, clean energy since the 1970s. In fact, the island nation has been on geothermal power almost exclusively for decades, and it has contributed greatly to not only the environment but the well-being of its citizenry as well. 

In Iceland, this power is used to not only generate electricity but also to heat homes, warm the roads in the winter, heat greenhouses, and fuel the large hot spring industry which draws thousands of tourists each year. So, in addition to being a huge boon to energy, it also helps buoy up their economy as well.

With all this information, it seems like geothermal power is a no-lose scenario: it’s not nearly as unsightly as wind or solar, and doesn’t have near the environmental impact that mining the resources for solar power takes. It’s also reliable – the Earth will constantly and consistently produce heat until there is no Earth, and since the water used is in a closed circuit, there’s no waste. Not to mention that geothermal power would significantly improve the air quality in the region! So, what’s the hold-up? Why aren’t there geothermal power plants dotting the country?

According to Hansen, the two biggest limiting factors are first, capital expenditure. Enhanced geothermal power can be very expensive in the initial stages. Drilling into the Earth requires expensive equipment which, at the depths needed to produce heat, often breaks down and needs either repair or replacement. Though inexpensive in the long run, the startup costs can be prohibitive. The other limiting factor goes hand in hand: funding.

While the federal government and other programs have funneled significant funding into both wind and solar power, geothermal power hasn’t gotten nearly the attention of the other two. This is something that Hansen, Rees, and others hope changes in the near future, so as to provide not only Utah but the entire globe with safe, clean, renewable energy for the foreseeable future.

As with any findings like these, there’s a lot of information to be learned and much more than can fit in any one article. The Utah Office of Energy Development team in collaboration with the Utah Geologic Survey has provided some amazing resources to that end, however. All of the research, all of the findings, and data on geothermal energy here in Utah, and how it can benefit the state beyond just electricity, can be found on their website at: