Geothermal energy gets a green light | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Geothermal energy gets a green light

Andrew Cristancho

TRUCKEE — The utility district here took a big step last week toward increasing its use of green energy. But its effect on electricity bills won’t be known until the contract is signed and the district prepares its next budget.

The utility district board agreed last Wednesday to a 10-year energy deal that includes importing geothermal power from a plant in northern Nevada called Rye-Patch. The green energy will be piped in using Sierra Pacific Power Co.’s transmission lines.

“One of the costliest parts of this (geo-thermal power) is transmission,” said Peggy Brown, program officer for the Great Basin Center for Geothermal Energy.

And cost is what ratepayers are curious about – especially considering the hand-wringing about possible skyrocketing rates that occurred last year during the acrimonious debate over a proposed 50-year coal contract. Although the coal deal would not have gone into effect until 2012, it would have extended until 2062, locking Truckee residents into a half-century of coal power.

“They wanted an easy big fat contract,” said Bob Johnston, chair of the Truckee Planning Commission and a critic of the coal contract. “That’s the old way.”

Johnston added that district officials did not publicly identify how much the coal contract would cost ratepayers, so the board could not compare it to the market price of other energy sources.

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Although one district official was reluctant to discuss possible rate changes until the contract is signed, some board members concede a rate hike of about 7.3 percent is possible, although that would still be better than buying energy at market rates.

What if Truckee had to buy energy at the going rate?

“(The) rate increase would be 25 percent,” said Tim Taylor, president of the utility board. “It’s the best the deal we have right now.”

Board Vice President Pat Sutton said she had just learned about some of the details of the geothermal contract the Friday before the vote.

“I thought it was a railroad job,” Sutton said. “They had it set up so you had to vote ‘yes’ that night.”

Sutton complained that district management made no effort to consult with independent experts. Sutton said her research indicated that once a geothermal source is located, there’s no guarantee it will last. To Sutton, the bottom line is that the contract was pushed through the board too fast.

“I don’t think it’s going to be cheaper power; what it will mean is a small amount of (renewable) power,” Sutton said.

Regardless of the green contract’s possible effect on rates, the district is likely to continue pursuing renewable energy for several reasons.

For one, the public loudly protested the coal contract last year. Also, the public utility adopted a goal to use 21 percent alternative energy sources by 2010. The California Legislature previously established a 20-percent target for public utilities.

District assistant General Manager Steve Hollabaugh said wind and solar power are both options, but the technology is not as reliable as other energy sources.

“I want as much solar as I can get up here, but my job is to keep the lights on,” Hollabaugh said.

A rate increase may be inevitable down the road no matter what, according to Johnston, the Truckee planner. If the cost of coal is evaluated by the level of carbon dioxide emissions, then emerging green technologies may be seen as more competitive.

“Wind is going to get cheaper and cheaper,” Johnston said. “It appears that the (Truckee Donner) PUD is on the right track.”

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