Tectonic Shift

The new Ormat plant will use the same binary geothermal technology as the one shown, eliminating the need for water consumption or emissions.

In California, climate-friendly energy usually means wind or solar, but a contract approved in Monterey last month could mark the rise of another clean technology: geothermal power.

The state’s first geothermal plant in nine years will soon be built in the Eastern Sierras thanks to a deal between Monterey Bay Community Power (and other energy providers) and Reno-based Ormat Technologies. Negotiations are underway for similar projects involving a growing number of communities across California.

Currently, geothermal energy provides a tiny fraction of the electricity used by Americans, but there’s enough power bubbling up from the seismic cracks in the Earth’s surface to generate some 16 percent of the country’s demand, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Most of the potential is on the West Coast along the edges of tectonic plates that also are responsible for earthquakes.

What’s driving the interest in geothermal energy as a renewable source is its reliability. Unlike solar panels or wind turbines, geothermal plants produce a steady, 24/7 supply of emissions-free electricity. That’s especially important as California pursues carbon neutrality by 2045, and more fossil fuel-fired power plants are taken offline.

The contract with Ormat comes out of a request for proposals jointly put out last year by Monterey Bay Community Power and Silicon Valley Clean Energy, two public agencies formed under the state’s Community Choice Aggregation laws.

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Bidders submitted 87 proposals, which were then scored according to cost, location, developer experience and whether the electricity it offers fluctuates with weather and sunshine. Six projects made the shortlist, including Ormat’s proposed plant in Mammoth Lakes, which the operations board of MBCP approved when it met on Jan. 8.

The shortlist also includes a much larger geothermal project in Inyo County from the developer Middle River Power and four solar projects outfitted with batteries, allowing energy generation during the day and distribution in the evening when demand tends to peak. These five projects are still being negotiated by agency staff and might be presented to agency governing boards for consideration in the next few months, according to J.R. Killigrew, MBCP’s director of communications and energy programs.

“We are definitely excited to expand our renewable project portfolio, especially [to projects] that operate 24/7,” Killigrew says.

Under the 10-year power purchase agreement signed with Ormat, MBCP and SVCE will buy 7 megawatts of electricity each. The plant’s remaining 16 megawatts will be bought by the city of Colton in San Bernardino County.

For a project marking a milestone in the renewable industry, that’s not a lot of electricity. Seven megawatts is only enough to serve about 1 percent of the annual load required by ratepayers within the MBCP service area.

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Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers higher education, the military, the environment, public lands and the geographic areas of Seaside, Monterey, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

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