FAIRBANKS, Alaska – It's quite warm for October here, with record-breaking temperatures in the low 60s forcing me to work up a sweat backpacking through vast tracts of spruce, snow-patched mountains and towering geological formations. So while I'm taking advantage of the unseasonable weather as I do some side reporting on glacier formations for PM, the vacation part of my itinerary to seems a bit less appealing. But Chena, 60 scenic miles east of Fairbanks, is not your ordinary hot springs resort—and as a hotbed of geothermal technology, it's well worth the visit.
With the U.S. Department of Energy all but giving up on tapping into the country's geothermal resources, Chena Hot Springs is testing out . "It starts here in Alaska," says Bernie Karl, a spirited "green" entrepreneur and the resort's proprietor. "I believe every village in Alaska can be self-sufficient in ten years. With the $7.25-per-gallon prices for heating oil, it's no wonder Alaskans took the [40-percent reduction on oil] handout from [Venezuelan president Hugo] Chavez. Maybe will wake somebody up in this state to look at alternative energy more seriously."
Chena is home to the lowest-temperature geothermal energy resource in the world. Currently, there is one 200 kw moderate-temperature geothermal ORC power plant from (UTC) meeting the resort's power needs, with another plant on the way to provide a total of 400 kw. That's enough to heat, light and grow food at Chena while having energy leftover for Karl's real long-term plan—to plug the extra juice into an electrolytic cell from Teladyne as Chena eventually becomes self-sufficient and petroleum-free. The power plant uses both the hot spring's naturally 165-degree water and the area's cold water, thus meeting the necessary 120-degree water difference. Eventually, with both plants running, Karl estimates that his power costs should be reduced from 30 cents per kWh to just six or seven cents—saving $360,000 a year so Chena can break even in about four years on its $1.4-million investment (with $2.8 million in funding to test these units from UTC and the energy department).
If UTC's geothermal plant catches on, Karl believes, its upfront cost should diminish significantly. "Still, most of the cost for geothermic energy is in the drilling," he says, adding that uses for the technology are already available across the U.S. "Oil companies don't drill wells for water, but they have some 5,000 kW of geothermal power at their disposal in unused oil wells. Let's pick the low-hanging fruit," Karl says, "and use the wells we have for oil for geothermal power."
Chena Hot Springs has bought its own oil rigs capable of 6,000-foot holes, which the retreat plans to use before the heavy winter for a 3,000-foot geothermal feasibility test, searching for water that will reach, they believe, around 235 degrees.
After the geothermal power plant, devices for hydrogen-producing electrolytic cells (and solar-power cells) and the , Karl has plans to buy a biomass turbine for recycling. The turbine will use about 1,500 tons of paper and cardboard as a source of biomass to create energy and use the waste heat to warm the resort's cabins. It's all part of Chena's plan to become petroleum-free, prove the value of alternative energy, make it profitable "and give the earth a hug while doing it," Karl says. –Tyghe Trimble
Chena Hot Springs proprietor Bernie Karl holds the fruits of his geothermal labor. Chenas greenhouses are heated year-round with water from the hot springs running through pipes throughout the room. They require 42 year-round, 1000-watt halogen bulbs for 5300 sq. ft of space, power provided by the geothermal power station.
This pump sucks up some 450-500 gallons of hot water per minute. In the process the water loses about 30 degrees and is then placed back in the earth to heat up and reuse. Cold water for the power plant flows over 200 meters from a 30 feet elevation, letting gravity take place of another electric pump.
United Technology Corporations moderate temperature geothermal ORC power plant provides 200 kw of power using naturally 165 F water, the lowest-temperature geothermal plant in the world. (CLICK TO ENLARGE)
Steam rises from the Chena Hot Springs resort east of Fairbanks, Alaska.