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Geothermal company looks to Augustine as a source of renewable energy

Augustine Island during geology field work in July, 2013.
M.L. Coombs
Alaska Volcano Observatory / U.S. Geological Survey
Augustine Island during geology field work in July, 2013.

An Alaska company could start prospecting for energy on the active volcano on Augustine Island, in Cook Inlet. The state of Alaska is considering leasing land to GeoAlaska LLC so it can see if Augustine is a good fit for a potential geothermal project.

The company is already prospecting for energy at Mount Spurr, 40 miles west of Tyonek.

GeoAlaska CEO Erik Anderson, of Anchorage, said the two-year-old company is looking at those two Cook Inlet volcanoes because they’re closer to Alaska’s population center and the Railbelt.

"The resources have to be not too far away from the market so that you can actually tie them to it," he said. "Because we can’t beam electricity. It has to come by transmission line.”

Geothermal energy can be harnessed from the heat below the earth’s surface in the form of steam or water. It’s a renewable resource, since there’s no shortage of heat there. And like other renewables, it can be used to heat homes or generate electricity.

What interested companies need first is more information and data so they know where to drill.

GeoAlaska wants to lease state-owned land from the Alaska Division of Oil and Gas through its geothermal program to look into the resource.

The Division of Oil and Gas has held lease sales for Spurr in the 1980s and 2008, as well as Augustine in 2013.

But as is the case with oil and gas, bidding and exploration doesn’t always equal production. And no company has taken the leap to connect geothermal power from either volcano with an electrical grid.

GeoAlaska is looking into gathering data on a stretch of land that covers 3,047 acres on the south side of Augustine Island.

Anderson said that part of the island shows promise.

“The bottom line is it has non-volcanic formations that allow a very nice cap for a geothermal reservoir, and also potentially good reservoir rock formations," he said. (A geothermal reservoir is that well of hot water that companies want to tap into.)

There are a myriad other geothermal projects in early stages in Alaska. But the technology still has its challenges.

Sean Clifton with the Alaska Division of Oil and Gas said that's partly because the state is so spread out.

"An additional challenge is that it’s still a very under-explored state," Clifton said. "And so we just don’t have a lot of great data about what geothermal resources might be available that are closer to populated centers.”

The fact that Augustine is an island is also an obstacle. Still, Anderson said it’s still closer than most to Alaska's most populated region.

“We didn’t pick these volcanoes because they’re particularly nice to work with, or that they have great resources," Anderson said. "It’s all about the market.”

He said his company started with the Mount Spurr project. They’re starting to bring in experts to look at data there.

Anderson and his team see geothermal as a way to move the state toward a more sustainable energy future.

The state sees that potential, too. Gov. MikeDunleavy proposed legislation, working through the legislature now, that he said would make geothermal exploration in Alaska easier by broadening the area companies are allowed to explore and extending the exploration period so companies have more time to look on a given permit, among other changes.

Meantime, he state released a preliminary approval for the Augustine permit Thursday.

It's just a draft. Clifton said his department will take into account feedback submitted by the public.

“Sometimes the comments can actually be really helpful in exposing areas where we may not have looked carefully enough over the course of our research," he said. "It can sometimes take many months to evaluate the comments and respond to them appropriately.

After that, they’ll issue a final finding on whether GeoAlaska can start prospecting

You can submit public comment on the proposed project on the division’s website.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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