DELTA — The land south of here is mostly flat, sprawling and full of cheatgrass and sagebrush, a landscape that belies its hidden treasure thousands of feet below the surface.
In this wind-whipped region of west central Utah lies a volcano, a literal hotbed of geothermal energy that has the potential to erupt with cheap, dependable power for years to come.
"This big basin is hot," said Rick Allis, director of the Utah Geological Survey.
The Black Rock Desert is teeming with underground heat revealed through a two-year research project that sunk holes in the ground suggesting temperatures of up to 500 degrees, 13,000 feet deep.
The results of the effort that paired geoscientists with the Utah Geological Survey and the U.S. Geological Survey will be presented Monday in Reno, Nev., at an industry conference, where the big find is expected to draw big attention.
"It looks to us to be quite an exciting prospect," Allis said. "We are excited about it."
The estimated 620-square-mile geothermal basin teased geologists because of an abandoned oil exploration well that was drilled in 1981. Sunk near Pavant Butte in the middle of the basin, it confirmed exceptionally high temperatures.
Geologists are well-acquainted with the volcanic history of the region. As recently as 600 years ago, there was an eruption. The Pavant Butte Volcano spewed 15,000 years ago. The area is already home to PacifiCorp's Blundell geothermal power plant, Raser Technologies' Hatch plant and a geothermal facility at Cove Fort.
Combined, the plants produce less than 100 megawatts of geothermal power, while this find has the potential to deliver several hundred megawatts of geothermal power for years at a large scale — with an hour of energy estimated to cost just 10 cents at the wholesale price.
Allis said most geothermal plants occupy just a few square miles, and the less deep they drill, the better.
The find at Black Rock Desert at first blush is intimidating — extraction would have to take place at thousands of feet deep — but Allis said the technology is already there with the oil industry.
"It is not that deep by oil industry standards," he said.4 comments on this story
Allis said he believes the Black Rock Desert could be home to a substantially large geothermal power plant, much larger than other plants.
"The reason it will be that size is that the wells have to be deeper so you go to economy of scale," he said.
Tapping that volcano power in this region is particularly attractive because of a major transmission line that already ships power to California, as well as a coal-fired power plant. The infrastructure is there, ready to be used, Allis added.
"Utah power is relatively cheap," he said. "California pays twice our rates. For geothermal power, you could not pick a better place."