Geothermal project hits roadblock in Nevada, but sector poised to surge nationwide

Judge pauses project over tribal and environmental concerns. Still, technical advances and the huge need for 24/7 renewable power mean geothermal has bright prospects.

The Dixie Meadows hot springs in central Nevada (Patrick Donnelly, Center for Biological Diversity)
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A geothermal energy project in central Nevada that was set to break ground on Thursday is now in limbo. A federal judge this week ruled to temporarily delay initial construction work on the Dixie Meadows power plants, which would be built near a verdant wetland ecosystem and hot springs considered sacred to the Fallon Paiute–Shoshone Tribe.

Ormat Technologies, the project’s Reno-based developer, planned to begin bulldozing land as early as January 6 to clear the way for what could become two 30-megawatt geothermal plants. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management approved the project in late 2021 after six years of review, noting that the geothermal facilities would help to meet both state and federal goals for producing more renewable electricity.

Last month, however, tribal leaders and the conservation group Center for Biological Diversity sued the bureau over its approval, accusing the federal agency of violating laws for environmental and religious protections. The groups say the Dixie Meadows project would irreparably damage sacred waters and destroy the only known habitat of the Dixie Valley toad, which is being considered for endangered species protection.

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U.S. District Judge Robert C. Jones on Tuesday ordered Ormat to postpone construction for at least 90 days while the case works its way through the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Jones expressed substantial concerns” over what he said was a lack of details on how the geothermal plants might impact the hot springs.

In an emailed statement, Ormat called the ruling a tremendous setback for renewable energy development and the achievement of critical climate-change timelines.”

Dixie Meadows is the latest U.S. clean energy project to meet pushback over conservation and cultural concerns. 

In North Dakota last year, state wildlife officials called for relocating parts of a proposed 70-turbine wind farm that abuts the habitat of the sage grouse, a bird whose population is declining. In California’s Mojave Desert, BrightSource Energy paid to relocate desert tortoises to build its massive Ivanpah solar thermal power plant, which went online in 2014. And in northern Nevada, plans to mine lithium — a key ingredient in electric vehicle batteries — are facing growing opposition from members of the Fort McDermitt Paiute–Shoshone Tribe and other organizations, who say the future mine site is culturally and historically significant.

Yet the legal fight over Dixie Meadows is fairly unusual among geothermal energy projects in Nevada, which has seen substantial growth of the heat-driven technology in recent years with little opposition. Ormat itself operates eight geothermal plants in Nevada, including the state’s largest: the 160-megawatt McGinness Hills complex.

Ormat Technologies recently expanded its McGinness Hills geothermal power plant complex in eastern Nevada. (Ormat Technologies)

There are geothermal plants elsewhere [in the region] that we have not opposed,” Cathi Tuni, the Fallon Paiute–Shoshone tribal chair, said in a statement. But the Dixie Meadows project would build industrial power plants right next to a sacred place of healing and reflection.”

Nevada’s geothermal growth fueled by modern designs

Almost all of Nevada lies within the Great Basin, a vast watershed that drains internally and is rich in underground reservoirs of hot water and steam. 

Since 1984, when Nevada’s first geothermal plant came online, the Silver State has built 26 facilities totaling 770 megawatts of capacity. Nevada is the nation’s second-largest state for geothermal energy after California, which has more than 1,800 megawatts in capacity.

Unlike wind and solar, geothermal can supply 24/7 baseload clean electricity to the grid, helping to balance the intermittency of its renewable counterparts. But geothermal technology has long been constrained by geography, which largely explains why only about 0.4 percent of annual U.S. electricity generation comes from geothermal plants.

California built the nation’s first large-scale geothermal plants in the early 1960s, and the majority of its aging facilities use the same approach. Operators drill geothermal wells to harness steam, which directly spins turbines and generates electricity. Steam-powered plants require extremely high reservoir temperatures — between 400 and 650 degrees Fahrenheit — to operate effectively, limiting the locations where such plants can be built.

Nevada’s geothermal plants, by contrast, primarily use binary-cycle” systems, which operate at temperatures of 200°F to 330°F.

California has most of the country's steam-powered geothermal capacity, while Nevada has most of the total binary-cycle capacity. (U.S. Energy Information Administration)

In these facilities, a closed-loop system pumps water through a heat exchanger along with a secondary working fluid; that alternative fluid then turns into vapor and drives electric turbines. The lower-temperature approach has enabled developers to build geothermal plants in places that lack the scalding, steaming reservoirs of Northern California or Iceland.

We certainly wouldn’t have had a buildout in Nevada [without it],” Tim Latimer, CEO of geothermal startup Fervo Energy, told Canary Media. That wouldn’t have been possible before you saw binary-cycle plants be developed and scale up and become a mature technology.”

About 90 percent of U.S. geothermal plants built since 2000 are binary cycle, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Along with the geographical advantages, the closed-loop approach avoids the water and air pollution associated with first-generation steam plants.

Most U.S. utility-scale geothermal power plants built since 1990 use "binary-cycle" systems. (U.S. Energy Information Administration)

Next-generation tech to extend geothermal’s reach

Startups like Fervo are working to extend geothermal projects even further through enhanced and advanced drilling technologies. With horizontal drilling, use of fiber-optic sensors and other methods, the idea is to tap underground resources that would otherwise be physically or financially difficult to access. 

Latimer said his Houston-based company is pursuing projects that combine advanced drilling tools with binary-cycle systems. In May, Fervo signed an agreement to build its first commercial project: a geothermal facility in Nevada that will supply always-on, carbon-free” electricity for Google’s data centers in the state. Construction is already underway, though Latimer declined to say where the project is located and whether it’s on public land.

Such technology improvements could significantly grow the nation’s geothermal sector in coming decades. 

The United States has the potential to reach more than 60 gigawatts in geothermal electricity capacity by 2050, up from roughly 2.5 gigawatts today, the U.S. Department of Energy said in its 2019 GeoVision report. Last fall, the department awarded $12 million to seven research projects developing cutting-edge geothermal solutions.

That push coincides with a broader effort by the Biden administration and U.S. policymakers to accelerate clean energy development on public lands — which, as it happens, is where most of the nation’s geothermal resources are. Congress has set a goal to permit 25 gigawatts’ worth of wind, solar and geothermal projects on federally managed lands by 2025. That’s more than double the current combined capacity of projects permitted by the Bureau of Land Management.

Construction delays could sideline Dixie Meadows project

Still, meeting those clean energy targets will be difficult without a faster, smoother federal permitting process, Latimer said. He noted that, in the case of Dixie Meadows, the Bureau of Land Management approved the geothermal project more than four years after completing its environmental assessment for the two power plants.

Ormat Technologies said it has invested $68 million in project permitting and compliance so far for the Dixie Meadows complex. To start, the company plans to build a 15-megawatt geothermal plant, then add another 45 megawatts in total capacity over time. Construction on the initial facility was supposed to start this month, so that the plant could begin supplying electricity to the Southern California Public Power Authority by the end of this year. Now construction can’t begin until April 4 at the earliest.

Ormat said the court’s delay of the first phase of construction has a detrimental impact on the financial feasibility of the project.” The geothermal developer said that the concerns raised by the Fallon Paiute–Shoshone Tribe and Center for Biological Diversity have been properly addressed in the federal review process and that the company has adopted strategies to avoid harming cultural resources or wetland habitats in the project area.

Opponents of the Dixie Meadows project say they’re not convinced. They remain concerned that the new geothermal plants could eventually cause the hot springs to go dry — which possibly occurred at another Ormat-owned facility in nearby Jersey Valley. After that 10-megawatt plant came online in 2011, the hot springs gradually decreased in volume and ultimately dried up in 2015. Ormat has proposed piping in water from other sources to mitigate the impacts.

Patrick Donnelly, the Nevada state director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said that even a temporary pause on the Dixie Meadows project is a welcome relief for tribal members and defenders of the imperiled Dixie Valley toad.

We support renewable energy, we support geothermal,” he said. But we oppose extinction.”

Maria Gallucci is a clean energy reporter at Canary Media, where she covers hard-to-decarbonize sectors and efforts to make the energy transition more affordable and equitable.