Diesel-Burning Nome Has Geothermal Hopes

They’re drilling for energy in Alaska – but it’s not oil they’re after some 60 miles northeast of Nome, out on Alaska’s west coast. Hot water is the target.

The attraction of geothermal resources in a remote place like Nome isn’t hard to figure out: As Sean Doogan reported in the Alaska Dispatch, Nome, with a population of around 3,500 people, has about 3 megawatts of wind capacity at its disposal but mostly burns imported diesel to generate its electricity. As in Hawaii, this is an expensive (not to mention dirty) proposition – with fuel and transportation costs running high – making renewables an attractive possibility.

alaska geothermal

Work this month at Pilgrim Hot Springs (image via ACEP)

The Alaska Center for Power and Energy, with financial help from the U.S. Department of Energy among others, is trying to figure out if Pilgrim Hot Springs can help.

In several years of study, the researchers learned enough about the site to believe it “could be capable of sustaining approximately 2 MW of power generation, which could be used locally or delivered to Nome or a nearby mining operation via a transmission line.”

Now they’re doing some deep drilling, down to around 1,000 feet, to get a firmer idea of the resource and begin to map out a strategy for taking advantage of it. With water temperatures around 195 degrees, the site would use the very common binary geothermal (for more on how that works, check out the last four paragraphs of this story).

As with all things energy, the fate of Pilgrim Hot Springs as an energy source will to a large degree come down to how cheaply it can be developed. Cost is a notorious challenge for geothermal, and the Nome utility manager told the Dispatch that Pilgrim Hot Springs would need to be able to deliver energy for about 22 cents per kilowatt-hour to be viable, even against diesel. Wind could almost certainly be added for less than that, but wind can’t provide something geothermal can: reliable baseload generation.

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.