The Backlash! - Backlash Article Archive - Tapping Geothermal Energy
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Tapping Geothermal Energy
By Rod Van Mechelen
Do rich rewards await the Cascade Mountain tribes?
Prologue to power
“Plant 7 is about to come online,” the project manager observed. Few spectators showed up for these, anymore, mostly tribal elders. He turned his attention back to the operations, where technicians busied themselves with last minute checks. They were all used to the routine, by now, and several were veterans of previous plant openings.

The first of the two great geothermal grids started here, in the Cascades, in the foothills of Mount St. Helens. Now the seven plants stretched from Mount Baker to Mount Lassen. This feat had taken the combined effort of the 30 recognized tribes of Washington State, which now included the Chinook, the 9 tribes of Oregon, and the Yurok, in Northern California.

Together, they formed a geothermal development corporation, an intertribal business that pooled the resources of the 40 tribes to work through the labyrinth of federal and state regulations and bring clean electrical energy to market.

Resistance came from many quarters.

On the left, environmentalists criticized the construction of the new grid. Particularly since the tribes had insisted upon using entrenched ultra-capacitors, rather than high tension wires, to deliver their electricity. But then, the environmental extremists always fought against anything they feared would help to sustain too many people. With worldwide fertility rates plummeting, however, it was now evident that the population was about to peak and would soon begin to fall, and so few paid attention, anymore, to the wild-eyed prophets of catastrophic overpopulation.

On the right, corporate liberals criticized the tribes for "overstepping" states’ rights and acting like they were above ordinary citizens. The corporate liberals always fought against anything they felt posed a threat to the power and profits of the multinational corporations whose interests, knowingly or not, they served, especially where Indian tribes were concerned. But when the power flowed, cheap, clean and plentiful, nobody cared about that, anymore. Not even the corporate liberals.

Existing power companies proved the most challenging. But they changed their minds after the intertribal corporation began to partner with them. So they did not complain even when the tribes began to lobby for removal of all of the fish habitat-destroying dams. So long as they had cheap electricity to sell, they were happy.

Although all of the plants presented many challenges, the Mount St. Helens plant, the first to be built, proved to be the most difficult. The lessons learned there helped to smooth the way for the rest, which proved easier. And after the initial investments, the profits from each plant not only paid for the construction of each new plant, but provided a flow of funds to the tribes that eventually dwarfed the combined casino profits of the gaming tribes among them.

That was years ago. Now, as the Mount Baker plant, Plant #7, came online, everybody knew it could be done without destroying the environment, in a way that was respectful of the Earth Mother. And earlier this year, the intertribal company received government approval to begin construction of a new series of plants, a second grid that would draw off the heat of Yellowstone National Park to both provide electricity to an energy-hungry nation, and potentially mitigate the volcanic hazard posed by the mega-caldera.

In effect, the Yellowstone grid would act like a giant radiator, cooling the underlying magma while producing electricity for the nation and profits for the tribes. And, as they had done in the Cascades, they were partnering with local tribes and the local power and natural resources companies.

Is this our future?
2010 Olympia, Wash. - The scenario above looks back from our potential future to view the work and success of an intertribal company formed by the tribes of the Cascade Mountain Range to develop the geothermal energy resources, there. The account is fictional, but there are compelling reasons why we should make it a reality.

If the 20th century belonged to “big oil,” the 21st will belong to “big electricity.” Breakthroughs in electrical energy storage are going to finally render internal combustion engines obsolete for many applications, including cars and boats. Consequently, the demand for electricity is going to skyrocket.

Corporate liberals will use this to argue for more nuclear power plants. It’s a proven, if costly, technology, but we are all familiar with the risks and hazards associated with nuclear. You would think that environmentalists would argue for wind farming, but the irony is that most support for wind farming comes from the moderate center-left.

What about Wind?
Environmental extremists oppose wind on the basis that it requires construction of new transmission grids, but their real motivation is that they oppose any buildup of energy production that would potentially support a larger population. (See Population Control: The Key to All Environmentalist Objectives, 2000, Jonathan Marin; Global Swarming: Is it time for Americans to start cutting our baby emissions?, 2007, Engber, Slate; Next on the Environment Agenda: Population Control!, 2009, Leech,; We're all doomed! 40 years from global catastrophe - and there's NOTHING we can do about it, says climate change expert, 2008, Sarah Sands, Daily Mail)

They believe that a world population of about 2 billion people would be optimum, that the absolute maximum sustainable human population is 5.1 billion people, and that without government intervention the human population will rapidly exceed between 10 and 14 billion this century. (See Optimum Human Population Size, 1993, by By Gretchen C. Daily, Anne H. Ehrlich, and Paul R. Ehrlich; and Towards sustainable and optimum populations, Optimum Population Trust.)

But according to Fred Pearce, author of The Coming Population Crash and Our Planet's Surprising Future, fertility rates all over the world are either slowing or, in many countries, even crashing. He writes that the world population will peak in the 2050s at about 8 billion, and then will taper off to about 5 billion. That’s less than the 6.9 billion people alive, today.

The fading specter of overpopulation notwithstanding, what about wind? Many tribes are looking into wind farming, many of us have attended a Wind Energy Applications Training Symposium (WEATS), and it's exciting to consider.

But while some tribes could possibly do very well with wind farming--there are some very good wind resources on the Pacific coast and along the Cascade Mountain Range, where the Yakama Nation has two wind projects in the works--as a general rule most tribes, here, would not necessarily want to invest in large scale wind farming at this time: the greatest wind resources are not along the Cascades but in the Midwest.

What we have, here, in greatest abundance is geothermal energy: Geothermal Resource of the United States Map--Jpeg versus United States and State — 80-Meter Wind Resource Map--PDF

Intertribal Geothermal Power
Some tribes claim the Cascade Mountain Range as a part of our respective territories, and it is a tremendous source of geothermal energy. To develop that would require money, and only a few of those tribes have substantial gaming revenue. But were all the tribes of the Cascade Mountain Range to band together with the gaming tribes of Washington and Oregon to create an intertribal geothermal power corporation, we would have the resources necessary to start commercial development of the Cascade Mountain Range geothermal energy.

Geothermal energy is free, clean and abundant. Geothermal power development, however, is very expensive. Like oil, you have to drill for it. And like oil drilling, most of the wells come up “dry.” But once you find and tap the heat, the main costs are maintenance and transmission. There is no fuel, so once the plant is built and the power is flowing, the expenses are minimal.

Next to drilling, the greatest challenges are the regulatory hurdles and the construction costs. For private corporations, the regulatory hurdles often prove insurmountable. Many geothermal hotspots lie on federal land, where they are protected from commercial development. As tribes, we exist sandwiched between states and the federal government, and our direct relationship with the federal government may prove invaluable to surmount regulatory obstacles to gain access to those geothermal resources.

Geothermal Power Technologies
What kind of technologies would need to be used or developed? Most systems rely on hydrothermal energy; basically, hot water. Two examples are the Geothermal Binary Plant and Geothermal Integrated Combined Cycle Units.

There are many little hot springs scattered throughout the Cascades, as well as in the Olympics to the west, and hydrothermal is the obvious route for any geothermal power plant to take. Most accessible geothermal energy, however, is contained in hot rocks, where there is no water. A new technology to tap into that, and one that I do not particularly like, is the Enhanced Geothermal System:

However, the vast majority of geothermal energy within drilling reach is in dry and non-porous rock. EGS technologies "enhance" and/or create geothermal resources in this hot dry rock (HDR) through hydraulic pumping high pressure cold water down an injection well into the rock. ... Water travels through fractures in the rock, capturing the heat of the rock until it is forced out of a second borehole as very hot water, which is converted into electricity using either a steam turbine or a binary power plant system. All of the water, now cooled, is injected back into the ground to heat up again in a closed loop. -- Enhanced geothermal system, From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
There are two reasons I don't care for this. The first is that it can potentially cause earthquakes. The second is the potential for groundwater contamination. Injected water is not going to stay put, but will seep out. Better, it seems to me, would be a closed system of heat exchange pipes that, like a giant radiator, would transfer the heat. This technology, however, remains to be developed.

Another idea suggested by a friend is the Stirling engine, a heat engine that might be used in conjunction with geothermal to produce electricity.

New technologies for transmission
Most of these power plants would have to be built in remote locations, and getting the electricity to market would be a challenge. We have all seen the ugly high-tension transmission cables that mar the landscape and flood the surrounding environment with electro-magnetic radiation. But new technologies can make transmission lines far safer and more efficient.

See, for example, Moving Electricity via Super-Cold Cables Wins Influential D.C. Ally, Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2009.

One technology that may have been overlooked, however, is the ultra-capacitor, which I suggested in the scenario above. The potential advantages of ultra-capacitors include modular construction, so failed parts could be easily replaced, they could be buried underground or placed in a pipeline-like structure, they don't throw off any radiation, they promise to be extremely efficient, and they could act as both a means of transmission and of storage.

Ultra-capacitors are still in the development stage, and this application is only one of many that may be possible.

Why should the Cascade Mountain Range Tribes do this?
The future promises a world of fewer people, but they will live longer, more productive lives, and they will want and demand even more electricity than is produced today. Geothermal can go far to meet this demand, and do it cleanly.

Private companies want to do this but have no enduring interest in or obligation to the land and people, here. The tribes do. Taking the opportunity to do this, the tribes, by working together, can assure that development of the power plants and transmission lines, and their maintenance, will serve both short-term goals and long-term needs while respecting the land, wildlife and people.

This would bring great benefit to the people served by the power plants, and honor and profits to the tribes involved. It is a worthy undertaking, one that warrants investigation at the very least.


Rod Van Mechelen

Rod Van Mechelen is the author of What Everyone Should Know about Feminist Issues: The Male-Positive Perspective (the page now includes several articles by other authors), and the publisher of The Backlash! @ He is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and served for 9-1/2 years on the Cowlitz Indian Tribal Council.


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