Technology

Geothermal energy gains esteem in Boise

 By Sharon Fisher

While cities around the world use geothermal energy, Boise, Idaho, is different

In many places the use of geothermal energy is a recent development; the process extracts heat from geothermal water then re-injects it into the ground. Boise started using geothermal energy in houses in the 19th century, employing the water itself; in more recent developments, the city now also uses a re-injection system.
Based on the same magma system that powers Yellowstone‘s geysers and hot springs, Boise’s geothermal energy potential is limited because its water isn’t very hot, only 177 degrees. Consequently, it can’t generate much power, although it does generate some – about 1.3 percent in 2014 for Idaho Power, one of the state’s primary electricity utilities. In addition, the city uses heat pump technology to exploit the energy in even the lower-temperature water, an innovation that led it to be nominated for awards.

Boise-way-using-geothermal-energy
Using the 20 miles of pipeline to pump the water, the city of Boise takes the water and trough an intricate system is re-injected back into a supply aquifer. (publicworks.cityofboise.org)

Boise continues to drill geothermal wells and add to its system, which already includes commercial buildings – as well as its City Hall, the Ada County Courthouse, the State Capitol, part of Boise State University and some residential areas. It’s even used to melt snow on sidewalks. Altogether, the system consists of 20 miles of pipeline, making it the largest municipally operated direct-use geothermal energy system in the United States. “Boise, Idaho, uses geothermal for 91 government and commercial buildings, totaling 5 million square feet of space,” writes Adina Solomon in Citylab. Geothermal energy also helped create the state’s first zero net energy building in 2016.
Boise’s use of geothermal energy started in the 1890s when the city was forming; settlers discovered the area’s natural hot springs and started building houses to take advantage of them. The area became known as Warm Springs, becoming the city’s most expensive neighborhood, which it remains today…

What will Boise’s energy future look like? In collaboration with local utilities, business, energy experts and environmental organizations, the City of Boise is developing a plan that expands the use of clean energy

Today Warm Springs has about 300 customers. The geothermal system now managed by the Boise Warm Springs Water District has been in operation since 1892 and is the oldest continuously operating geothermal system in the U. S.
The biggest roadblock Boise’s geothermal energy system has had is that the state largely uses hydropower and natural gas to produce electricity, which is so cheap that people don’t have the incentive to switch to geothermal energy. The city has worked to expand access to its geothermal system, especially as new neighborhoods and commercial buildings get developed downtown.
The geothermal energy system is so ubiquitous in downtown Boise that many visitors and residents aren’t even aware of it. In fact, for many people, the first time they learned about Boise’s geothermal system is when a pipeline sprang a leak in 2016. But unlike other kinds of power systems, where a leak of oil or radiation could damage the environment, the geothermal leak didn’t hurt anybody or harm the environment. “Instead of volatile natural gas exploding or oil fouling our waters, a geothermal leak just results in a few hours’ delay for the repair and cleaner streets from the hot water rinse,” writes Ben Otto of the Idaho Conservation League.

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Sharon Fisher