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October 20, 2014

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Water Authority eyes power for pipeline plan

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Southern Nevada Water Authority is on the verge of getting into the geothermal power business.

The water agency on May 11 purchased a lease on 4,473 acres south of Ely from the Bureau of Land Management for about $9,000.

The agency hopes to build a geothermal energy plant there to power pumps for a planned groundwater pipeline that would siphon off up to 170,000 acre-feet of water from springs in Eastern Nevada for use in Las Vegas and the Coyote Springs development.

Moving all that water will take a huge amount of electricity, something the agency doesn’t have.

Owning power plants is nothing new to the Water Authority. It is the biggest electricity user in the area and owns most of its generators.

The Water Authority is partial owner in NV Energy’s Silverhawk natural gas-fired plant at Apex, from which it gets about 400 megawatts of electricity. It also gets a significant amount of electricity from hydropower generators at Hoover Dam, solar installations across the valley and hydroturbines in some of its pipelines. It also has a power purchase agreement with a company that generates electricity from burning used fryer grease.

That electricity goes toward moving water to and from Lake Mead and treating it for consumption or return to the lake.

Twelve percent of the electricity the agency uses comes from renewable sources and it has a goal of matching the state mandated portfolio standard for NV Energy of generating 25 percent of its electricity from renewable resources or energy conservation by 2025, says Scott Krantz, Water Authority energy management director.

A geothermal plant would provide electricity 24 hours a day seven days a week at a predictable cost. But only if the there’s enough heat underground to support a power plant.

The land the Water Authority is leasing hasn’t been thoroughly evaluated for geothermal potential, which is why the lease price was low — just $2 an acre. The Water Authority board has not yet discussed hiring an exploratory drilling contractor or partnering with a geothermal energy company, but it has allocated $10 million for exploratory work and has applied for an Energy Department grant, spokesman J.C. Davis says.

Because of the recession it could be years before any serious drilling takes place.

“This is only in the earliest stages,” board member Steve Sisolak says. “We’re mostly discussing the pipeline and ranching part of this plan at this point.”

Developing a geothermal plant, from exploration to construction, takes about a decade, but the Water Authority has plenty of time. The pipeline project is in the slow lane because of decreasing demand and the slowdown in growth, Sisolak says.

The pipeline also faces other hurdles that could take years to resolve. The authority’s water rights for the project from the state are in jeopardy after a Nevada Supreme Court ruling that found the applications had expired before they were granted. Utah is holding back on signing a water-sharing agreement that would effectively split the water in one of the basins where the authority wants to pump. Environmentalists and ranchers say there isn’t enough water in the eastern basins to support the kind of pumping the Water Authority plans.

The agency, though, is pushing ahead with all preliminary permits and planning documents to begin the project. General Manager Pat Mulroy says the project will only begin if absolutely necessary for the economic survival of the Las Vegas Valley, but that it needs to be ready to act swiftly should the area’s water supply diminish.

It is possible the pipeline will never get built. But the geothermal power plant might be built anyway, Krantz says. In that case, the Water Authority could sell the electricity or negotiate a power exchange deal with NV Energy for more electricity in Southern Nevada.

“That power would be valuable,” Krantz says.

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