Some of the most promising areas in New Mexico’s Santa Fe National Forest near the Valles Caldera National Preserve have significant geothermal potential and the Forest Service has undertaken a year-long study to determine where utility-scale geothermal power plants can be built in the Jemez Mountains.
The Santa Fe National Forest and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversee geothermal leases on all federal lands, are hosting a public meeting this month to discuss the geothermal leases. Geothermal exploration will be excluded from some parts of the Jemez Mountains to protect endangered wildlife, hot springs and other protected resources.
Paving the way for geothermal power
One geothermal company, Ormat Nevada of Reno, Nevada, filed notice with the BLM expressing interest in leasing 46,000 acres on the north and northwest side of the Valles Caldera for geothermal energy exploration and development. The land is part of 195,000 acres within the Santa Fe National Forest that has “significant geothermal potential,” according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The Santa Fe National Forest has to first prepare an environmental assessment about the potential impacts of leasing the land for geothermal development.
The agency plans to complete the geothermal environmental review by November 2016 and it is expected to take a further several months after that to review the final leasing plans.
If the Forest Service approves the leasing plans, BLM will hold a competitive bid, officials said. Companies that win the leases will have to go back to the Forest Service to have individual geothermal projects approved.
Significant geothermal resources untapped
New Mexico has vast geothermal power potential, as do many western US states. Large tracts of land were leased by companies in the 1970s and early 1980s for geothermal development, but few projects emerged for a number of reasons, according to research by James C. Witcher of New Mexico State University. Reasons include bankability of projects and environmental assessments. So far, greenhouses, tilapia farms and hot springs bathers have been enjoying the state’s geothermal resources.
Sheila Mallory, BLM’s deputy state director for mineral development in New Mexico, says that geothermal is an ideal source of renewable power, especially since power plants has the potential to last 50 years.
Dry geothermal plants, like the ones proposed for the Jemez Mountains, inject water into a well that is heated from rocks deep underground. The hot water is collected and used to turn a turbine before being re-injected. It is a closed loop system, where the same water is heated repeatedly. Geothermal plants produce electricity constantly but like most renewable power sources, the plants have to be located close to the transmission grid for integration.
Nevada, California, Oregon and Utah remain the most “business-friendly environments” for geothermal power in the United States, according to a 2014 report from the Geothermal Energy Association.
In 2013, the 4MW Dale Burgett Geothermal Plant became New Mexico’s first utility-scale geothermal plant. The plant’s second phase, the 6MW Lightning Dock, is underway. Public Service Company of New Mexico is buying the Burgett plant’s energy.