AUSTIN — Years ago, a cowboy was hired to scout rangeland in north-central Nevada for signs of underground geothermal aquifers, according to Bureau of Land Management Tonopah Field Office Manager Tim Coward.
As Coward tells it, the cowboy, referred to only by first name, Scott, rode horseback up and down the sagebrush slopes, happy to be out in the country. But he knew he couldn’t return to his employer empty-handed, so he picked a spot on a map and hoped for the best. Now that area, 10 miles north-east of Austin, houses a geothermal energy plant.
The McGinness Hills power plant, off Grass Valley Road, is operated by Ormat Technologies Inc.
The truth is “Scott’s” find was less serendipitous, explained Randy Peterson, manager of corporate permitting at Ormat.
Although there were no plumes of steam or hot surface springs, geological formations found near an old historic site provided the first clue that the area was conducive to geothermal development.
“For thousands of years Native Americans came (to the site),” Peterson said, recently during a public tour of the facility. “It was a quarry for tool material.”
The rock deposit, which Peterson compared to flint or obsidian, is a remnant commonly spotted at ancient hot springs.
“That’s one of the first indications that at some time in the past there was a huge hot spring cluster here. There might have been a geyser,” he said.
The company also accessed oil exploration records from the 1950s and 1960s that were filed away in corporate systems or — in at least one case — stored away in a geologist’s garage, according to Peterson.
“At some places (the records indicate) they’d hit hot water 500 feet down and they said, ‘This is not where we want to be. There’s no oil here,’” he said.
Once the area was identified as a possible hot spot, the company obtained leases and explored seismically and with test wells.
For a company that has a presence in more than 75 countries, according to its website, the thorough and sophisticated search methods come as no surprise. (Peterson confirmed that Scott did help Ormat search around the area for possible leasing opportunities.)
Among Ormat’s Nevada locations is a power plant north of Elko near Tuscarora, which was permitted within the last couple years.
Public pressure for a greater reliance on all types of renewable energy has been mounting for some time, but in Northern Nevada geothermal energy is the primary type, according to Faye Andersen, NV Energy’s communication manager.
NV Energy has been purchasing geothermal power since the early 1980s, but renewable resource energy in Nevada is growing — in part, due to a state mandate that one quarter of a utility’s portfolio come from wind, solar or geothermal methods by 2025. Faye said utilities in the state today are at about 18 percent.
The McGinness Hills plant averages 35 megawatts of power production 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year — an advantage boasted by geothermal plants, which don’t slow down at night or on calm-wind days, said Peterson. The power travels via a transmission line about nine miles south to an NV Energy substation. Ormat pays a 1.75 percent royalty to the federal government on gross sales. After 10 years that number will almost double, Peterson said, to 3 percent.
Andersen said a single megawatt will typically power 650 residential homes.
Peterson described the process of converting 355-degree water into power that we use to turn on our lights and refrigerate our food. In general terms, he said, Ormat pumps water from the ground and runs it through pipes on site. The water is used to heat a sealed organic compound liquid called pentane, which boils at a lower temperature than water.
The pentane vaporizes, creates pressure and flows through turbines, which turn generators.
“The pentane and geothermal brine never come in contact with one another,” Peterson said. “They’re always separated by metal tubes and by piping. We never put pentane in the ground. We never put geothermal brine in contact with the pentane. You have two completely closed loops.”
Geothermal water is pumped back into the ground, and the plant is cooled with a large canopy of fans.
The largest obstacle to the permitting process turned out to be chicken-sized birds: sage grouse, which are under review under the Endangered Species Act.
Ormat was permitted 217 acres of surface disturbance, most of which is on Bureau of Land Management land that included sage-grouse habitat.
“We had a lot of active leks within a three-mile buffer zone of that plant,” said Doug Furtado, BLM Battle Mountain district manager.
Many officials in northeastern Nevada and elsewhere fear that conservation efforts to stave off a listing are enough to stomp out projects before they begin — but at McGinness Hills, that wasn’t the case.
Mitigation was built into the permit: Ormat helped organize a wildlife working group and put $602,000 toward a conservation mitigation fund based off a calculation of restoring or improving four acres of habitat for every one that is disturbed.
In the planning stages, the BLM and Ormat mapped out a variety of possible paths for the transmission lines. One option was to run the line over a ridge to the east of the road, but that cut right through sage grouse habitat. Another option to was follow the road to a riparian area and build a substation, but it was too close to the Pony Express Trail. The preferred option, which was selected, caused the least disturbance.
Ormat also placed a sign on the turnoff for Grass Valley Road, which instructs employees, contractors and visitors that no soliciting, deliveries, maintenance or drilling is allowed from one hour after sunrise to 10 a.m. March 15 - May 15 due to the lekking season.
Only about 100 acres of the permitted 217 have been disturbed, and Peterson said he didn’t expect much more disturbance in the future at that site. Ormat has already been permitted to build a second plant at McGinness Hills.
Pulled up by the bootstraps
Habitat in the area is also improved by the men and women who make up the Bootstraps Crew — a Nevada Cooperative Extension program for at-risk 18 to 25 year olds.
The organization was founded about 10 years ago.
“We decided there was a job to do and if there was a job to do we might as well give money to the guys who needed jobs. It was young men and women 18 to 25 years old. They really wanted to get ahead but they didn’t know how to do it,” said Rod Davis, cooperative extension educator in Lander County, who leads the crews with cooperative extension member Mike Stramm.
On the day of the tour, the crew was building a fence next to the power plant.
Davis pointed to a nearby peak, Eagle Butte, where the crew cut about 600 acres of pinyon-juniper encroachment from the hill’s alluvial fans.
“That was about a two-hour walk, with a chainsaw over your shoulder,” Davis said. “You learn to work.”
Members work four 10-hour shifts per week, staying at a camp near the work site, then return home for the weekends. Many of the crew members were from Owyhee or Battle Mountain.
“(The program) teaches pretty fundamental stuff,” Davis said, such as teamwork, work ethic, conflict resolution, resume building and healthy living. The program has an educational component and members can work toward a G.E.D.
“Newmont (Mining Corp.) comes down every year and does a program on mining,” he said. “…(Bootstrap members) fill out a practice application. They come back two weeks later and do a practice interview based on their application. But it’s not a practice interview. And it’s a real application. We always have four or five get offered jobs.”
Recently, the Bootstrap program was recognized by the Department of Interior in Washington D.C. with a “Partners in Conservation” award for its success.
“We’ve got a pretty good reputation of doing quality work. It’s going to get done and done on time,” Davis said. “And you can’t ignore the human development.”