For decades, the Oregon Institute of Technology has drawn from the earth to warm its classrooms, heat its swimming pool and melt snow from its sidewalks.
Now the rumble of heavy equipment and the installation of a 150-foot-tall drilling tower signal the school’s leap toward energy self-sufficiency. Within a year, OIT will become the first campus in the world powered entirely by its own renewable geothermal source.
The massive drilling rig will punch into a geological fracture almost a mile below ground, tapping 300-degree water to feed a 1.5-megawatt electrical plant. The $4.5 million high-heat plant will produce enough energy to power the entire Klamath Falls campus — and then some.
The project has ambitions beyond energy independence, though.
At a total cost of about $8.5 million, the plan includes a second, low-temperature power plant that can run on existing wells on the campus. Two large, heated aquaculture ponds and a pair of greenhouses will become incubators for researchers and companies that could bring industry to Klamath County.
Above all, the project will be a giant classroom for students drawn to OIT’s growing emphasis on renewable energy, said John Lund, director of the school’s Geo-Heat Center.
“We’re going to instrument the heck out of them because it’s part of learning,” said Lund, who envisions high school and younger students also learning from the geothermal array. “The investment the Oregon University System has made into it hopefully will be paid off.”
Eventually, the geothermal system could become part of a renewable energy “park” at OIT, where students will get hands-on experience with solar, wind and biofuels.
Klamath Falls has taken advantage of the area’s geology by tapping into the earth’s heat for more than a century, and more than 500 wells warm homes and businesses, municipal swimming pools and sidewalks.
The Geo-Heat Center, housed in a small office lined with books and research papers, is internationally known and has advised companies locally and globally. It helped Klamath Basin Brewing Co. five years ago to become the first in the world to use geothermal energy for its brewing process. And nearby Liskey Farms uses geothermal wells to heat its leased greenhouses for fruits and vegetables and for a predator mite operation, as well as a canola crusher to process oil for biodiesel.
But OIT’s electric plants take geothermal use a step further, drilling into the same crack in the earth’s crust that supplies 195-degree water at three existing campus wells.
Ultrasound testing last spring brought the fault into sharp focus, like the image of a baby in its mother’s womb. Although the drill can change direction, engineers hope to have a direct shot from the drilling site in the middle of campus. Water drawn from about 4,000 feet should be at least 300 degrees, Lund said, and provide the pressurized steam to turn the turbine in the power plant. Wastewater will be used in the campus heating system, the low-heat power plant or sold to other users.
There is no guarantee they will strike hot water — for example, recent exploratory drilling at Newberry Crater near Bend revealed plenty of heat but no water. But Lund and others are fairly certain their deep well will hit liquid.
“If it’s fractured, that means there are avenues for water to flow into it,” Lund said. “And we know there’s water in there because we’ve tapped into it.”
The drilling job itself is straightforward.
“It will be a challenge logistically rather than geologically,” said Patrick Hanson, marketing specialist for driller ThermaSource. “This is a highly unique project for us because it’s right in the middle of the university — and right in the middle of a parking lot of the university.”