VALE — U.S. Geothermal Inc. and Enbridge Inc. hosted a grand opening Friday celebrating the operation of their Neal Hot Springs Geothermal Plant, the first commercial geothermal power plant in Oregon.

With an annual average net production of 22 megawatts, the project west of Vale and Bully Creek Reservoir produces about 191,000 megawatt-hours annually, enough to supply the energy needs of about 24,000 customers, according to information provided by the two companies. The power is being sold to Idaho Power through a 25-year purchase agreement. About 150 jobs were created at the peak of construction, plus about 500 in the supply chain, and there are 12 full-time employees.

U.S. Geothermal, with offices in Boise, developed the project with Enbridge, a Canadian company, coming on board as an equity partner. The Neal Hot Springs plant began producing power in November 2012.

Besides top officials of both companies, attendees at Friday’s event included Jon Wellinghoff, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; Douglas Schultz, director of origination for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office; along with a number of federal, state and county officials, as well as people from the general public. Also attending were members of the Richard Jordan family, whose ranch is hosting the geothermal plant under a lease.

In addressing the audience, Douglas Glaspey, a co-founder and COO of U.S. Geothermal, lauded the Jordans for their willingness to work with the company.

He noted that U.S. Geothermal began its exploration of the site, starting from a site that Chevron had drilled back in the late 1970s.

Dennis Gilles, CEO of U.S. Geothermal, said Neal Hot Springs is the newest and largest of its three plants in the U.S. The company is operating plants at Raft River in Idaho and is developing a project in Guatemala.

“This project has a number of firsts,” Gilles said. It was the first geothermal project to obtain a loan guarantee under a Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program created to support the deployment of clean energy technologies. Neal Hot Springs is the first to use a binary cycle process, utilizing a cycle that uses refrigerant as the working fluid, an innovative air-cooled condenser, as well as pre-fabricated modular construction of major plant components.

Gilles called geothermal the “Rodney Dangerfield of renewable of renewable energy.” He said, “It gets no respect.”

In his remarks, Tom Pierson, founder and chief technology officer of TAS Energy, which made the modular plant components, said almost all the components in the plant were made in the United States.

As part of the celebration the companies presented the Vale Fire Department and the Owyhee Watershed Councils with checks of $2,000 each.

Geothermal: How it works.

Production wells are used to pump or remove hot (287 degree) geothermal water from the ground and move that water through a geothermal power plant.

The geothermal power plant is where the heat exchange and power generation takes place. The turbines contain a refrigerant identical to a car’s air conditioner refrigerant, R134a. As the geothermal heat is transferred to the refrigerant, it is converted from liquid to vapor, expanding, increasing in pressure and turning the turbines that drive the electrical generator. The hot water and the refrigerant are kept separate.

The cooling system converts the refrigerant from vapor to liquid so that it can be reused resulting in a closed loop, zero emission power plant. At the injection well, used 130 degree geothermal water is injected back into the ground.

Larry Meyer is a news reporter at the Argus Observer. He can be reached at (541) 823-4813 or by emailing larrym@argusobserver.com. To comment on this story, go to www.argusobserver.com.

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