(Update: Adding video, comments from AltaRock, Environmental Center)
BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- The only energy source of its kind in the world could take shape in Central Oregon in coming years.
In late September, AltaRock Energy announced the results of its latest study near the crater (caldera) of Newberry Volcano. The study found that the high temperature in the impermeable rock at the volcanic crater can be used as an energy source.
Geoff Garrison is the VP at AltaRock Energy, a company who’s been working at the Newberry Volcano since 2010.
“Newberry is probably the biggest untapped geothermal resource in North America,” Garrison said Thursday.
He said their latest study finds if they dig deeper, to higher-temperature areas, they can produce energy that costs nearly half the price of conventional geothermal, and close to the price of natural gas.
AltaRock's analysis found the Levelized Cost of Electricity would be less than $0.05/kilowatt-hour. The company says a conventional EGS (enhanced geothermal system) resource has an LCOE of $0.10/kilowatt-hour or higher.
Mike Riley, executive director at The Environmental Center in Bend, is aware of the work AltaRock has been doing and generally supportive, though cautious.
“I actually think it's an exciting opportunity for our community,” Riley said. “I think from an environmental perspective, there are still some questions to answer.”
Riley says he supports the project, but has concerns over its impact on surrounding wildlife, native peoples and its use of water.
Garrison said, “This is not a consumptive use of water, so we’re not using water from the overall water budget. The water is recycled and put back underground, once it is used to extract heat.”
Garrison said the company is working with several government and environmental agencies, including the Energy and Agriculture departments, as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
He said visually, the work will be done out of sight from the visitor center and monument.
Garrison says they hope to have a plant operational in the next five to eight years, powering between 150,000 and 300,000 homes.
“We have access to pretty much the entire Oregon grid,” Garrison said.
He said between now and then, there is still more testing to be done on the behavior of rocks at such high temperatures.
“We know more about the surface of Mars than we do what’s underneath our feet,” Garrison said.
Garrison also noted the risk of causing an earthquake is something they always look out for, but for this type of geothermal energy, the area they go to is so hot, the rocks are softer, and thus the risk of causing a quake is lower.
Riley said with the effects of climate change already prevalent, any solution is a step in the right direction.
“We all need to figure out how to reduce our piece of it,” Riley said. “It's this big, global problem that’s the sum of a lot of activity, and this is one of the things we can be doing at the local level.”
Garrison said Newberry is the perfect place to start.
“Central Oregon is very energy-rich, when it comes to these resources,” Garrison said. “We think this is a real opportunity for the area around Bend to grow technologically.”
Although commonly referred to as Newberry Crater, the "crater" is in fact a caldera formed when the overlying rocks collapse when a magma chamber is emptied, the Forest Service says. The caldera stretches across 17 square miles in the heart of the volcano. The 1,200 square mile volcano (about the size of Rhode Island) remains very active to this day. Newberry is both seismically and geothermally active. Geologists believe the caldera sits over a shallow magma body only 2 to 5 kilometers deep.