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Geothermal energy heats up in King Salmon

Jill Burke

king-salmon-lift-004
Naknek Electric Association photo
The Naknek Electric Association geothermal power generation plant.
Nearly 300 miles south of Anchorage sits a small community where tribal members are descendants of villagers forced to flee an erupting volcano.  Nearly a century after those ancestors were chased away, King Salmon is the home base for an energy discovery tapping into the same forces that caused Mount Katmai to blow in 1912.

In a place best known for its world-class salmon runs, workers are currently in the process of capturing a different kind of catch. Each day, a drilling crew is lifting from a deep hole in the earth enough water to fill nearly 500 bath tubs, at temperatures hot enough to slow-cook spare ribs. In the geothermal world a 250-degree heat source isn't exceptionally warm but it's plenty warm enough to get the job done.

Converting the earth's trapped heat into energy isn't an earth-shatteringly new endeavor. But the project underway on the northern tip of the Aleutian Chain is a first for the state of Alaska. The geothermal wells Naknek Electric Association is drilling are a lead up to the first utility-grade geothermal plant in Alaska history. If successful, the plant is expected to dramatically decrease utility rates in the Bristol Bay region. At first only three communities will tie into the new power source -- Naknek, South Naknek and King Salmon -- but the ultimate goal is to connect all 28 villages in the Bristol Bay region to the alternative energy grid.

The first well, drilled to a depth of more than 10,000 feet earlier this summer, cost $20 million to put in. Drilling on a second well, estimated to cost around $9 million, is expected to begin this fall, and a third well is also in the works. It's hoped a 25-megawatt plant could be up and running in 2012. If predictions are correct, the the plant could drop electric bills by 70 percent. More remote communities that pay even higher premiums for diesel-generated power could see even greater savings.

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Cyrus Read/AVO photo
The Katmai complex, with Naknek Lake in the foreground, Mt. Griggs and the Valley of 10,000 Smokes in the background.
Because the water temperature is mid-grade, NEA is looking at a power plant model that incorporates a heat exchanger. The hot water rising from the earth is used to heat a secondary liquid with a lower boiling point, the vapors from which are then directed into a turbine.

NEA is in the process of cleaning out its first well. State regulators required the use drilling fluid as a precaution in the event the drill tapped an unexpected petroleum source. As a result, site crews have an extra mess to clean up, according to project manager Donna Vukich. The well liner is full of drilling fluid, a cool, clay-like substance similar in consistency to thick chocolate milk. The "mud" is used to reinforce the hole's walls and cool the drill bit.

Once the well is clean, it should also start producing warmer water. Water just above freezing is mixed with the mud for use during drilling. NEA estimates at least 1.8 million gallons of cold water have been injected during the well's construction, lowering the temperature of the well itself, but it's too early to tell how much hotter the water may become once the mud is removed, Vukich said.

Aside from being the first large-scale geothermal project to get underway in the state, the NEA wells are also proving that rocks and water warmed from magma deep within the earth can be found outside traditional volcanic zones. Although Bristol Bay is located near the Ring of Fire -- the chain of volcanoes hugging the Pacific Rim -- the project is tapping the water in a location 50 to 60 miles away. It's an important find, since it gives hope that more communities statewide outside traditionally obvious "hot zones" -- either in active volanic basins or near hot springs -- may be able to similarly tap into geothermal heat, Vukich said.

NEA isn't alone in looking below the earth's surface for solutions to its energy needs. The city of Akutan, located further toward the southwest tip of the Aleutian chain, also has a geothermal project underway. And closer to Anchorage, a company called Ormat Nevada Inc. is preparing to search for deep-trapped heat at the base of Mount Spurr on the west side of Cook Inlet.

Residents in Bristol Bay are optimistic about the plant's impact, envisioning a future in which fish processors, motivated by low-cost energy, extend their work season and entrepreneurs and hotel owners can operate more economically and continue to draw in tourists looking to experience the area's world-class fishing and wildlife viewing opportunities. And it's important to improve life in all communities in the region, not just a select few, Vukich said. Better cold storage, better icing facilities for fishermens' catches -- the Bristol Bay brand for quality salmon won't maintain its preeminence if only some of the communities are upgraded. Consistency matters, she said, and neither NEA nor Vukich is alone in that vision.

"Despite its bounty, the increasing and unpredictable cost of fossil fuel energy is destabilizing rural communities," wrote L. Tiel Smith, resource manager for Bristol Bay Native Corporation, in a letter of support for the project. "Lowering the cost of energy will radically improve local economies, enhance resource development and preserve the culture."

Getting to this point hasn't been cheap. NEA contributed about $20 million of its own money to get the first well put in. Another $3.5 million came from state and federal grants. It will take another $52 million to build two more wells, the power plant and the distribtution lines to carry the electricity to homes and buildings in the first three test communities. $20 million of the next phases is covered by grant money, leaving NEA to pick up $32 million of what remains. In the end, if all 28 communities are connected to the new geothermal grid, it could cost $200 milliion to transform Bristol Bay into a nearly diesel-free region.

The well's cost efficiency will ultimately depend on variables that aren't yet known. In addition to the final temperatures, the volume of water in the well and consumer demand also matter. Despite the unknowns, anticipation for a major shift in the region's long-term economics is surging.

"As we clean the well and the temperatures increases we become even more excited," Vukich said. "But we still have a long way to go."

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.