By Abby Haight, The Oregonian
For decades, the Oregon Institute of Technology (OIT), Klamath Falls, OR, has drawn from the earth to warm its classrooms, heat its swimming pool, and melt snow from its sidewalks. Now, the rumble of heavy equipment and the installation of a 150-foot-tall drilling tower signal the school's leap toward energy self-sufficiency. Within a year, OIT will become the first campus in the world powered entirely by its own renewable geothermal source.
The massive drilling rig will punch into a geological fracture almost a mile below ground, tapping 300-degree water to feed a 1.5-megawatt electrical plant. The $4.5 million high-heat plant will produce enough energy to power the entire Klamath Falls campus - and then some.
The project has ambitions beyond energy independence, though. At a total cost of about $8.5 million, the plan includes a second, low-temperature power plant that can run on existing wells on the campus. Two large, heated aquaculture ponds and a pair of greenhouses will become incubators for researchers and companies that could bring industry to Klamath County.
Above all, the project will be a giant classroom for students drawn to OIT's growing emphasis on renewable energy, says John Lund, director of the school's Geo-Heat Center. "We're going to instrument the heck out of them because it's part of learning," says Lund, who envisions high schoolers and younger students also learning from the geothermal array. "The investment the Oregon University System has made into it hopefully will be paid off."
Eventually, the geothermal system could become part of a renewable energy "park" at OIT, where students will get hands-on experience with solar, wind, and biofuels.
More than a Century of Use
Klamath Falls has taken advantage of the area's geology by tapping into the earth's heat for more than a century, and more than 500 wells warm homes and businesses, municipal swimming pools, and sidewalks.
The Geo-Heat Center, housed in a small office lined with books and research papers, is internationally known and has advised companies locally and globally. It helped Klamath Basin Brewing Co. 5 years ago to become the first in the world to use geothermal energy for its brewing process. And, nearby Liskey Farms uses geothermal wells to heat its leased greenhouses for fruits and vegetables, and for a predator mite operation, as well as a canola crusher to process oil for biodiesel.
But, OIT's electric plants take geothermal use a step further, drilling into the same crack in the earth's crust that supplies 195-degree water at three existing campus wells. Ultrasound testing last spring brought the fault into sharp focus, like the image of a baby in its mother's womb. Although the drill can change direction, engineers hope to have a direct shot from the drilling site in the middle of campus. Water drawn from about 4,000 feet should be at least 300 degrees, Lund says, and provide the pressurized steam to turn the turbine in the power plant. Wastewater will be used in the campus heating system and the low-heat power plant, or sold to other users.
There is no guarantee they will strike hot water - for example, recent exploratory drilling at Newberry Crater near Bend, OR, revealed plenty of heat, but no water. But, Lund and others are fairly certain that their deep well will hit liquid. "If it's fractured, that means there are avenues for water to flow into it," Lund says. "And, we know there's water in there because we've tapped into it."
50 Truckloads of Equipment
The drilling job itself is straightforward. "It will be a challenge logistically rather than geologically," says Patrick Hanson, marketing specialist at driller ThermaSource. "This is a highly unique project for us because it's right in the middle of the university - and right in the middle of a parking lot of the university."
ThermaSource, based in Santa Rosa, CA, normally does large, multi-well projects in the wilderness, sometimes drilling more than 2 miles beneath the surface. But, the company's founders have worked with Lund, Assistant Director Toni Boyd, and the Geo-Heat Center over the years. "We wanted to be a part of this," Hanson says. "We're a longtime networking friend of John and Toni, and it's definitely something we're interested in."
Fifty truckloads of equipment and pipe were due to arrive on campus Jan. 11. Deep drilling should begin soon and will take about a month, running around the clock. Funding comes from federal and state money, and the Oregon University System. OIT will seek an additional $1.3 million from the Department of Energy during the next congressional session, and Lund says he expects private investors to also step forward. "Once you have a well, the investors flock to you because the risk is gone," he says.
The school already saves about $1 million annually in heating costs, and plans to make about $200,000 by selling geothermal heat. The power plant will also cut $500,000 in electrical costs, and excess electricity could be sold to a commercial power company.