Vast reaches of Utah’s West Desert could be leased for geothermal power

BLM approves exploratory project, issues geothermal leases on 31,000 acres in Beaver and Millard counties.

(Courtesy photo by the Bureau of Land Management) The BLM is leasing large sections of Utah’s West Desert for geothermal energy development, such as Pine Valley in this photograph shot from the Wah Wah Mountains looking northwest. Two companies recently acquired rights to 32,000 acres in Beaver and Millard counties.

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Commercial interest is heating up in Utah’s West Desert as a potential haven for geothermal-generated power.

This week the Bureau of Land Management issued leases to geothermal power developers on 32,000 acres in Millard and Beaver counties and also greenlighted exploratory drilling outside Milford.

To identify the extent of geothermal resources under a 1, 885-acre tract already under lease a few miles north of Milford, a company called Ormat Nevada Inc., a Reno-based subsidiary of Ormat Technologies, will construct and operate up to 20 wells, according to a decision released Friday. Should the Bailey Mountain Geothermal Exploration Project discover a viable energy source, Ormat could then seek to build a geothermal plant, joining the 48 others operating on BLM-managed lands.

This week’s developments were announced soon after the Biden administration unveiled an initiative for expanding renewable energy production. The White House hopes to permit 25 gigawatts of generation capacity on public lands by 2025.

The Utah projects announced this week, however, were under consideration before Joe Biden was sworn in as president and announced sweeping policy changes aimed at curbing climate-altering emissions. Still, geothermal projects enjoy strong support from Utah state officials who lauded their economic benefits to rural Utah.

“As the United States tackles climate change by transitioning to low-carbon energy resources, it is imperative that projects providing affordable clean energy are brought online at a pace equal to or greater than the rate at which fossil-fueled energy systems are retired‚” wrote Redge Johnson, Utah’s top public lands adviser, in the state’s official comments to the Bailey Mountain project.

Since Biden’s inauguration, geothermal interests have flooded the BLM’s Utah state office with “expressions of interest” to lease most of the public land in the West Desert, according to an analysis by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. In February and March alone, 357 nominations were submitted, listing a sale date of Aug. 1, 2023.

The Interior Department allows interest parties to nominate lands for development, so it is not possible to know who is nominating these lands or what their real intentions or capabilities are.

At a recent geothermal auction, the BLM sold development rights for an average of $71 per acre on 21,685 acres, totaling nearly $800,000. Three parcels totaling 9,791 acres failed to win bids at the auction and were later sold without competitive bids.

“BLM Utah is committed to processing applications and leases for generating renewable energy on public lands, which provides jobs and generates electricity for our homes,” said Paul Briggs, BLM’s Cedar City field manager. “We will continue to work closely with our partners, tribes, communities, and local governments to ensure any energy development maximizes efficiencies and minimizes environmental impacts for the benefit of current and future generations.”

The companies acquiring these leases are Velikan Renewables LLC, of Houston, and RodaTherm Energy Corp., of Calgary, according to the BLM.

Geothermal has a few advantages over wind and solar as a renewable in that it provides constant “base-load” power regardless of the weather or time of day and it takes up a much smaller footprint. Geothermal plants do consume more water than wind and solar, but not as much as gas and coal-fired plants.

Geothermal is a lower cost energy source that diversifies the energy supply and supports the stability of the power grid,” Johnson’s comments stated. “Over its lifetime, the average cost of a geothermal plant is dramatically lower than that of many traditional power sources, in turn lowering energy costs for consumers.”

These plants tap hot spots closer to the surface, where magma seeps up cracks in the Earth’s crust. The Great Basin has an abundance of such cracks where geothermal plants could be located, but the optimal locations have yet to be determined.

To harness this energy source, wells are drilled up to two miles into heat-bearing formations, with temperatures between 300 and 700 degrees. Water is piped through hot rock and returned to the surface in the form of steam that drives a turbine. Milford is already a renewable energy hub where geothermal and wind facilities crank out electrons, with major solar projects in the pipeline.

Additionally, the University of Utah oversees federally funded geothermal research at its Utah FORGE lab, where U. geologists are exploring ways to accelerate breakthroughs in geothermal technology.

Geothermal currently accounts for less than 0.5% of the nation’s electrical generation and further expansion is seen as a win for the climate. But environmental concerns have disrupted some developments in the West, where much of the nation’s geothermal potential lies.

A federal judge in Nevada recently halted work on Ormat’s Dixie Meadows Geothermal Project after tribes and environmental groups raised objections about impacts on nearby hot springs.

But in the meantime Ormat can explore its Utah lease at Bailey Mountain outside Milford where it will drill up to 20 wells. Each would be drilled from a 2-acre well pad and take about 45 days of non-stop drilling to reach the 5,000-foot depths needed to assess the formation’s suitability for geothermal power.

If Ormat’s exploratory wells hit pay dirt, Utah could be more likely to see even more steam rising from emission-free power plants in its deserts.