In the Pacific Northwest, the U.S. Forest Service is set to open more than 80,000 acres for potential geothermal power development. Companies would then be able to apply for permits to build power plants that would harness the heat beneath the surface to spin turbines and generate electricity.
All of this would be taking place in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington state.
Industrial-scale geothermal power has been a dream clean energy source since the 1970s. Large geothermal plants are online in California and Nevada, but in the volcanic Pacific Northwest, the Earth's heat has been mainly tapped for small-scale, local heating needs, not big-time electricity generation.
Under the Forest Service's plan for Mount Baker-Snoqualmie, companies would be able to apply for permits to build power plants that would harness the heat beneath the surface to spin turbines and generate electricity.
Geologists Dave Tucker and Pete Stelling recently hiked to the Mount Baker Hot Springs, located within the national forest. The faint smell of sulfur greet them as they arrive at the hot springs. If you are picturing a beautiful, bubbling pool surrounded by ferns, stop.
The springs are trashed — beer bottles and cans, orange peels, a discarded bra in the mud next to a waist-deep pool of murky water. This isn't just a hot spot for geothermal activity. It's also a hot spot for local college kids who are looking for a soak in the springs.
Tucker, who along with Stelling is a volunteer board member at the Mount Baker Volcano Research Center, walks through the mess to stick his temperature sensor into the pool.
"101.3," he reads. "That's Fahrenheit: 101.4, 101.5. And imagine if you could stick a probe even 20 feet under the ground."
There's more heat where this water came from — enough to interest energy companies and utilities. The Snohomish Public Utility District plans to apply for a lease to build a geothermal plant in the area that would power roughly 20,000 homes.
The utility has spent about $5 million exploring geothermal potential in Washington, says spokesman Adam Lewis.
"It just makes so much sense for society, where we have these needs for power, to take advantage of the things that have been presented to us," Lewis says.
At this point, no leases have been issued and there are no specific geothermal development proposals on the table. Once the Forest Service announces its final leasing decision, companies can begin applying for individual permits to develop geothermal plants. Each project will then have to go through a full environmental review.
But environmentalists are already raising concerns.
"We're talking about facilities, fences, utility lines, roads," says Tom Uniack, conservation director for Washington Wild, one of 15 environmental groups that submitted comments on the Forest Service's proposed lease.
The groups are pushing for stronger protections for rivers and roadless areas, as well as old-growth sections of the forest.
"While all of our organizations support clean, renewable energy and addressing climate change, we want to make sure that we're not robbing Peter to pay Paul — to identify clean renewable sources of energy, but not at the expense of the few roadless forests and intact watersheds that we have left," Uniack says.
Harnessing geothermal power does come with some local environmental impacts, but the environmental benefits are worth it, Stelling says.
"We're in a situation now where we can't afford to be hamstrung by 'not in my backyard,' " Stelling says. "If we want to save the environment and be the environmentalists that we hope that we are, then we need to consider what we're doing on the bigger scale."