Geothermal In The Land Of Burning Man

Where’s all the clean energy we need going to come from? From practically every nook and cranny it sometimes seems.

For example: On your way to Burning Man this year, peer off to the west, oh, about eight miles before you hit Empire on Nevada State Route 447. You won’t be able to see the plant, but just a short drive out that lonely two-lane stretch of cracked macadam, out behind the hills, there’s clean energy being produced.

san emideio geothermal, burning man, nevada

image via Google Maps

The San Emidio geothermal plant has been operating in what is officially (and somewhat oddly) called the San Emidio Desert Known Geothermal Resource Area since the late 1980s. But a significant upgrade has been under way over the past couple of years, and last week U.S. Geothermal began commercial operation of a new 8.6 megawatt power plant.

Apparently it wasn’t an easy job.

“The San Emidio Unit I project was beset with delays that were necessary to ensure that our contractor delivered a fully functional power plant,” Daniel Kunz, CEO of U.S. Geothermal, said in a statement. “We truly appreciate the formidable efforts of our employees and contractors and the confidence and patience of our lenders, customer, and shareholders over the last several months.”

Under its old configuration, San Emidio was able to produce about 23,000 megawatt-hours of power a year. Now U.S. Geothermal expects about 71,500 MWh.

That’s enough to power about 6,500 average Nevada homes.

That big boost in geothermal power production came without drilling any new holes in the ground – the difference was a new binary cycle power plant that operates more efficiently. However, U.S. Geothermal says that it believes the geothermal reservoir at the location is capable of producing up to 44 megawatts of power, and more well drilling for a second power plant is part of their plan.

There’s other geothermal development going on in that neck of the woods, too. Last fall we reported that construction had begun on the Patua Geothermal Project, a large plant located in the desert near Fernley, Nev. Once completed in 2012, the first phase of the $300 million plant will generate up to 60 MW of renewable power. And elsewhere in Nevada, a $350 million federal loan guarantee for Ormat Nevada is helping build three different geothermal electricity generation plants – in Pershing, Lander and Elko counties, respectively – that are expected to produce a combined 121 megawatts of clean power.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.