Flathead Electric Cooperative to Begin Exploratory Geothermal Drilling

By Beacon Staff

After a long delay, Flathead Electric Cooperative is preparing to begin drilling in the Hot Springs area to explore the possibilities of geothermal energy.

In 2009, Rep. Denny Rehberg secured $491,000 for Flathead Electric Cooperative to use in pursuing geothermal exploration. At the time, the cooperative hoped to start drilling on a piece of land near Hot Springs by the following year, but the project was put on hold after the landowner died.

Lengthy negotiations with the landowner’s estate ensued, culminating with an agreement last month. Cheryl Talley, the cooperative’s director of energy, said site preparation is now underway. The well will be drilled at the site of an existing well, which was completed in 1982 to provide energy for an ethanol plant that was never built.

“We’ve got all our ducks in a row and drilling is scheduled for Dec. 12,” Talley said.

Flathead Electric Cooperative has been increasingly exploring renewable energy options since learning that Bonneville Power Administration is capping the amount of power it sells at lower wholesale prices. Future load growth will force the cooperative to purchase additional electricity at the higher rates, providing incentive to find cost-effective alternative energy sources.

The cooperative has proven open-minded in its pursuit of different energy sources. In June of 2009, FEC began operating a power plant at the Flathead County landfill that converts methane emanating from trash into usable energy. This summer, the plant’s production level was increased.

Also over the summer, the cooperative entered into a power-purchase agreement with the city of Whitefish to operate a long-abandoned hydroelectric plant, expected to be refurbished and running by next year. The cooperative agreed to advance $400,000 for energy delivered to the power grid over an eight-year period. Other terms of the agreement are triggered after eight years.

The cooperative is also looking into a biomass project at Stoltze Land and Lumber Company.

“It takes time to get these things rolling and we want them in place by the time we need the power,” Talley said.

And now, with the Rehberg funding still available, Flathead Electric is turning its attention to the geothermal project. Rehberg told the Beacon last week he supports the idea of exploring Montana’s many different energy possibilities.

“Energy production means jobs in Montana,” the congressman said. “Our state is literally a warehouse of energy and I’m going to continue working to create more made-in-Montana energy solutions.”

The area surrounding the northwestern Montana town of Hot Springs on the Flathead Indian Reservation is bubbling with mineral hot springs. There are a number of facilities that have diverted warm water near the surface into pools for recreational soaking and swimming. But it’s the hotter water found deeper down that appeals to Flathead Electric officials.

When Kalispell’s Jackola Engineering and Architecture led efforts to drill the original well in 1982 at the site of Wild Horse Hot Springs, engineers tapped into waters around 135 degrees at a depth of 257 feet. But it is believed that at least 165 degrees is necessary for power production, which requires drilling deeper.

Talley said FEC hopes to get down to 500 feet and maybe deeper. The depth may ultimately be determined by funds. And in an interesting twist, Talley said the same engineer and hydrologist from the 1982 project are working on the new drilling effort.

The exploratory drilling will help determine whether geothermal energy is in fact viable for electricity production. Talley said there is a small plant in Alaska that uses geothermal energy to produce municipal electricity.

“First we have to figure out if we have a resource,” Talley said. “If there’s a resource, that opens up a whole range of options. It’s all speculative unless we have a resource.”

Flathead Electric Cooperative has already discovered the merits of geothermal energy. The cooperative’s Kalispell office building and warehouse have a “closed-loop geothermal heating system” that draws water from the aquifer below, uses it for heating and then re-injects it back into the aquifer.

“It’s pretty fascinating,” Talley said.

Constructing a geothermal electricity generation plant is a bold new step and Talley figures, if completed, it will be unique to the state.

“As far as I know, directly using geothermal for power production – I don’t know of any other in Montana,” Talley said. “I don’t believe there are any.”