Loan program boosts U.S. Geothermal

With the Solyndra fiasco in the past, a Boise firm utilizes new technology.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comOctober 15, 2013 

U.S. Geothermal now has its 22-megawatt power plant near Vale, Ore., online, sending electricity produced from Neal Hot Springs into Idaho Power’s grid.

But two years ago, the loan guarantee it got from the U.S. Department of Energy was under fire.

The $97 million loan guarantee was part of the 2009 stimulus program, the same place solar-energy company Solyndra got a $528 million loan before it went bankrupt and laid off 1,100 workers in 2011.

Solyndra’s case made the clean-energy loans a political football that lasted into the 2012 election. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney used the Solyndra story as a part of his campaign speech in Boise, suggesting it was an example of crony capitalism.

All that controversy was in the past when U.S. Geothermal CEO Doug Glaspey, representatives of the power plant builder TAS Energy Inc. and the Geothermal Energy Association spoke to reporters Oct. 1 in Las Vegas at the Geothermal Energy Expo.

“We’re very grateful the Department of Energy worked with us,” Glaspey said.

The $130 million plant includes a first-of-its-kind binary cycle process developed by TAS. Binary cycle geothermal systems have a separate liquid piping that runs through the hot water deep below. This binary system pumps a unique refrigerant in the pipes through the hot water deposit under high pressure, carrying the heat to the surface.

“That success has opened the door to the use of this technology not only in the U.S., but across the world,” said Steve Hummel, director of renewable energy for TAS.

Glaspey said the technology now makes many lower-temperature geothermal areas economically viable for power production, adding 15 percent to the efficiency of previous systems.

Because of the political controversy, DOE did additional reviews of U.S. Geothermal’s loan and the investments of its partner Enbridge. Each review showed a clean slate. Idaho’s congressional delegation supported U.S. Geothermal, which estimates that 95 percent of the new Oregon plant’s infrastructure and parts were U.S.-made.

It employed 150 construction workers during the 20-month building phase, many of whom were from Idaho, company officials said.

Glaspey said emerging technologies need loan guarantee programs and other incentives to be able to compete with existing energy sources. U.S. Geothermal was able to get a 2.6 percent interest rate.

“You can afford to take a little risk,” he said.

But pricing and tax issues make it better for his Boise-based company to invest in places like Nevada or Guatemala — where it has active projects — than return to Idaho, where it still operates a plant near Raft River. Both places pay more for renewable energy, and in Nevada, the company can benefit from a sales tax exemption.

In recent years, Idaho let a tax exemption for renewable energy expire and the Idaho Public Utilities Commission lowered the price it pays renewable energy projects — the latter due in part to the low cost of natural gas.

“As business developers, we need to have a power price to make it attractive,” Glaspey said.

And if Idaho wants to attract home-grown energy, it needs to provide incentives, he said. For geothermal, the riskiest upfront cost is exploration.

“The state of Idaho could look at some sort of bonding for exploration and drilling,” he said.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service