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Economy | Education

Geothermal Could Boost Oregon's Energy Business

Besides advances in solar technology, Oregon also has some big ideas when it comes to other alternative energy sources.

The state has just approved plans for the largest wind farm in the country, in the Columbia River Gorge.

And in Klamath Falls, everyone is focused on geothermal. Ethan Lindsey reports.

Geothermal is really just a fancy way of saying hot water naturally heated by the earth.

Toni Boyd: “These tunnels connect every single building on campus.”

Standing in one of the tunnels under the Oregon Institute of Technology campus in Klamath Falls, Toni Boyd says the hot water flowing through underground pipes will soon power all the school's energy needs.

Toni Boyd: “I was always in hot water growing up, and that was a bad thing back then. Now, even though we're in hot water, that's always a good thing for us.” 

Right now, the pipes just provide heating, but that alone saves the campus $500,000 a year.

Toni Boyd: “What we do is we pump it out, up on the hill, and what's really nice about our campus, is everything runs downhill. And so we pump it, it goes through our pipelines, and each building gets the 192 degree water.

Boyd is the assistant director of the school's Geo-Heat Center.

She says the southern Oregon school, and city, are lucky to be located where they are.

In the first half of the century, it was located in a deactivated Marine Corps hospital a few miles away.

Toni Boyd: “And I guess, OIT owned some of this property here anyway, and the president at the time, Winston Purvine, noticed that some places on the hill, the snow melted faster up here. And he said, 'hmmm, I wonder if there's geothermal up there?' He kinda noticed it was there, and we moved the campus up here, after we drilled the wells.”

Klamath Falls is near a fault line in the earth's crust, and the planet's core naturally heats water near the surface.
Some of the city's sidewalks and roads are built with geothermal pipes, to melt snow in the winter.

But, with today's technology, engineers can also turn the heat into power.

OIT's Boyd graduated from the school with a civil engineering degree. Now she helps teach the first classes in the country's first Renewable Energy Systems degree program.

Toni Boyd: “I am kinda jealous you know, it's just one of those things, when I get time.”

When she gets time, maybe she'll audit some of the classes.

Toni Boyd: “For the renewable energy program, there is actually a geothermal course that they have to take. When we get our power plant on campus, too, you can actually monitor it online.”

Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden was in Klamath Falls this week to talk about the school's plan to become the world's first campus fully-heated and powered by geothermal energy.

Ron Wyden: “Oregon, and in particular this part of the state, can be the Saudi Arabia of renewables. All the sun, and geothermal, and wind. We're really well positioned to go gangbusters on renewables.”

But currently, geothermal supplies less than one percent of the world's energy.

Some say it doesn't have the potential some other alternative energies do.

And, from an environmental perspective, even though geothermal water doesn't emit any greenhouse gases, it can contain mercury and arsenic that can leech into rivers.

Boyd says that's why the OIT efforts are so important.

Students at the campus could now get the opportunity to solve some of those problems.