Students Shine at National Level, Showcase Implications of Geothermal Energy for Idaho

Wednesday, July 6 2011

MOSCOW, Idaho – A national award for University of Idaho geological sciences students is more than just a pat on the back. It showcases the implications of geothermal energy in Idaho, and the state's growing need to develop this renewable resource.

The geological sciences student team earned third place late last month in a National Geothermal Student Competition, or NGSC; the team evaluated the geothermal resources of the Rio Grande Rift in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.

"This is really an important award, because we have been trying to establish an energy geosciences initiative at the university for several years," said Jerry Fairley, associate professor of geological sciences and the faculty sponsor of the team.

"This is the first shot – the salvo to let people know we are out here. This was an enormously successful project. We edged out a number of leading programs," he noted. "Geothermal research at the University of Idaho now has national attention."

Geothermal research has tremendous implications for Idaho. The state has enormous potential for geothermal power, but its resources are almost entirely undeveloped.

Currently, there is only one plant – a private plant owed by U.S. Geothermal Inc. in Raft River. Geothermal energy promises an economic benefit for the state. The energy source has a small environmental footprint, the ability to produce energy consistently around the clock, and emits little or no greenhouse gases.

Right now, Idaho imports more than 50 percent of its base load of electricity, is buying coal power from Wyoming and its transmission lines to bring in power are all at maximum capacity.

"To grow, we need to bring in new transmission lines, which cost $1 million per mile," said Fairley. "With enhanced geothermal efforts, we can build plants closer to where we need them, provide better power, and have shorter transmission. It is important to the economic development of our state to have our own geothermal program. It will help us not be limited in our energy. We need to get out there."

In 2006, MIT issued report for the Department of Energy in which it discussed the nation's geothermal resources. Idaho's Nampa area was second on the list of recommendations for places to develop.

And students and researchers, such as the University of Idaho team, are positioned well to lead the state's endeavors. "We're looking at how to get out there and develop this and build this energy program," said Fairley. "Our researchers are partnering closely with CAES and INL, and working aggressively to grow this program."

In the competition, student teams conducted a comprehensive assessment of the geothermal energy potential of the Rio Grande Rift geologic province in southeastern Colorado and northeastern New Mexico. This is a high potential, but as of yet relatively undeveloped, geothermal region in the U.S. Each collegiate team produced a number of deliverables to assess a suite of geologic, engineering, environmental, land use, and policy and cultural issues that are crucial to future geothermal development in the Rio Grande Rift region and other prospective geothermal regions of the U.S.

The University of Idaho report, entitled "Evaluating the Geothermal Potential of the Rio Grande Rift using Spatial-Statistical Methods," placed ahead of many schools with well-known geothermal programs, including Stanford University and the University of Utah.

"Our team collected data and put it into statistical models to determine likelihood of geothermal resources using geostatistics," said Fairley. They collected info from land-use and other analyses, put the information into their GIS database, and overlaid it on the geostatistical information to identify the high probability locations that may be most useful for development. "The geostatistics component was unique; no other team had done it."

The team earned a cash award and an expense-paid trip to present their research at this year's Geothermal Resources Council national meeting, Oct. 23-26, in San Diego, Calif.

The NGSC, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Geothermal Technology Program and managed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, provides students with opportunities to gain important industry knowledge, skills, and experience, and to prepare them to play a significant role in the future of geothermal energy.

The members of the Idaho team are: Travis Kelsay (student lead) of Boulder, Colo.; Jessica Osterloh of Enterprise, Ore.; Ryan Pollyea of Moscow, Idaho; Alex Wagner of Bellevue, Wash.; Jennifer Hinds, U-Idaho Geological Sciences staff from Tullahoma, Tenn.; and Associate Professor of Geological Science Jerry Fairley, the faculty sponsor, based in Moscow.

To learn more about the university's Geological Sciences program, visit
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About the University of Idaho
Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s land-grant institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year. The University of Idaho is classified by the prestigious Carnegie Foundation as high research activity. The student population of 12,000 includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars, who select from more than 130 degree options in the colleges of Agricultural and Life Sciences; Art and Architecture; Business and Economics; Education; Engineering; Law; Letters, Arts and Social Sciences; Natural Resources; and Science. The university also is charged with the statewide mission for medical education through the WWAMI program. The university combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities and focuses on helping students to succeed and become leaders. It is home to the Vandals, and competes in the Western Athletic Conference. For more information, visit