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Churchill County: A hot spot for geothermal

Rob Sabo / Northern Nevada Business Weekly

A wealth of geothermal resources and ready power transmission lines makes Churchill County one of the state’s hottest areas for geothermal power development – and provides a financial windfall to the county as well.

Several companies already have established geothermal resources some 60 miles east of Carson City in Churchill County:

– Enel North America recently re-commissioned the 33-megawatt Stillwater and 13-megawatt Salt Wells geothermal power plants.



– Ormat Technologies operates the Brady Complex and Desert Peak plants, which generate about 22 megawatts.

– Magma Energy is working on an $18.2 million plan to double the capacity of its 11-megawatt Soda Lake operation to 23 megawatts. Completion is targeted for early 2010.



– Terra Gen Power LLC operates the largest facility in the area, the 66-megawatt Dixie Valley project.

And exploration for new projects is hot and heavy. Vulcan Power Company, which is headquartered at Bend, Ore., plans to develop up to 120 megawatts of power at its Patua property near Hazen and an additional 60 megawatts in the Salt Wells area about 15 miles east of Fallon. Vulcan’s long-term plans are to develop 180 to 240 megawatts of geothermal power on its properties in Churchill County, says Bob Warburton, the company’s acting chief executive officer.

Ormat plans an additional facility in the Salt Wells area. The Carson Lake project is estimated between 18 and 30 megawatts and could be online by 2011, says Paul Thomsen, director for policy and business development for Ormat Technologies.

Vulcan’s Warburton says that because of extensive exploration drilling already performed in the area and the availability of transmission lines to bring the power to the grid, Vulcan expects to bring its Patua property online over the next three to four years.

“From a timeline point of view, we will be able to execute at Patua more than anywhere else,” Warburton says. “For Patua there is transmission available in Fernley, and we only have to go six to eight miles to get there. Some other areas in Nevada, the transmission situation is much more difficult.

“There are reasonable alternatives for Churchill County at this time,” Warburton adds. “If NV Energy is allowed to move forward with an additional line, we believe there will be significant transmission capability there.”

NV Energy recently submitted a right-of-way proposal to the Bureau of Land Management for additional power lines, electrical substations and switching facilities to serve Churchill-area geothermal developments. Despite the extensive drilling working being performed in Churchill County, Ormat’s Thomsen cautions that there is a goodly gap between burrowing in the desert and generating power.

“The potential for Churchill County is very good – there are a lot of developers looking at prospects, but we have yet to see development occur,” Thomsen says. “There is resource out there, but getting from an exploration stage to actually having a physical plant online is very difficult. It is a slow, arduous process.”

Thomsen says a typical timeline for Ormat is five to six years from drilling to bringing a physical power plant online.

Vulcan’s Warburton says the cumbersome permitting process and tight restrictions on financing remain the biggest hurdles to overcome to bring the company’s development plans to fruition.

Revenue from geothermal exploration activity and from geothermal leases filed with the BLM has proven to be a gold mine for Churchill County. Although the county’s taxable sales in June dipped 15 percent from same period the previous year, for the fiscal year ended June 30 Churchill County was up 9.3 percent from 2008 – one of only two counties in the state to gain ground.

“Geothermal starts in the last few years have added millions of dollar to our economy, added hundreds of jobs and kept Churchill County in the black,” says County Manager Brad Goetsch.

Goetsch says the county uses less than 10 percent of the geothermal power it generates and has tapped less than 5 percent of the region’s potential. The geothermal industry expects to spend close to $2 billion in exploration in Churchill County in next five to six years, Goetsch says.

“We are talking in the millions to tens of millions of dollars coming in tax revenues if geothermal continues to develop,” he says. “Geothermal has a bright future, and renewables are truly a way to diversify and replace what’s been lost in construction and gaming.”


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