KLAMATH FALLS, Oregon (AP) — When snow falls on this downtown of brick buildings and glass storefronts in southern Oregon, it piles up everywhere but the sidewalks. It's the first sign that this timber and ranching town is like few others.
A combination of hot rocks and water like those that created Yellowstone's geysers have been tapped by the city to keep the sidewalks toasty since the early 1990s. They also heat downtown buildings, kettles at a brewhouse, and greenhouses and keep the lights on at a college campus.
Geothermal wells in this town of 20,000 mark one of America's most ambitious uses of a green energy resource with a tiny carbon footprint, and could serve as a model for a still-fledgling industry that is gaining steam with $338 million in stimulus funds and more than 100 projects nationwide.
"We didn't know it was green. It just made sense," said City Manager Jeff Ball.
Geothermal energy is unknown in much of the country but accounts for 0.5 percent of the nation's energy production.
It can be seen on a snowy day in a handful of Western towns like Klamath Falls. That's because hot rock is closer to the surface here, and comes with the water needed to bring the energy to the surface. Northern California is home to the world's largest geothermal power complex. The Geysers, 75 miles (120 kilometers) north of San Francisco, produces enough electricity for 750,000 homes.
With more than 600 geothermal wells heating houses, schools and a hospital as well as turning the turbine on a small power plant, Klamath Falls shows what everyday life could be if stimulus grants and venture capitalists turn geothermal energy from a Western curiosity to a game-changing energy resource.
Until now, geothermal energy has been limited by having to find the three essentials ingredients occurring together in one place naturally: hot rock relatively close to the surface, water, and cracks in the rock that serve as a reservoir.
Those limitations go away if engineers can tame a technology known as EGS, for Enhanced Geothermal Systems.
A 2007 Massachusetts Institute of Technology report estimates that EGS, with support, could be producing 100 gigawatts of electricity — equivalent to 1,000 coal-fired or nuclear power plants — by 2050, and has the potential to generate a large fraction of the U.S.'s energy needs for centuries to come.
"If we are going to try to achieve a transformational change in this country, geothermal should be part of that recipe," said Jefferson Tester, chairman of the committee that produced the report and professor of sustainable energy at Cornell University. "It's not treated that way. It's typically forgotten."
One form of EGS involves drilling thousands of feet down to reach hot rock, pumping water down to fracture the rock to create reservoirs, then sending down water that will come back up another well as hot water or steam that can spin a turbine to generate electricity.
The system can be dropped in practically anywhere that hot rocks are close enough to the surface to make drilling economical.
The major problem with EGS is the potential to create earthquakes.
Pumping water into the ground to open numerous tiny fractures in the rock for a reservoir makes the earth move — what scientists call induced seismicity. Earthquakes stopped an EGS project in the middle of Basel, Switzerland, last year, and an international protocol has been developed for monitoring and mitigating earthquake problems.