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California town wants to exploit geothermal bonanza

This remote town in northern California is taking a cue from even remoter -- and colder -- Iceland. Susanville residents may soon be using hot water from a natural underground reservoir to heat homes and businesses.

The geothermal source in this region is at relatively low temperature compared to the steam vents of Iceland. The surface temperature of the water underlying Susanville usually is at from 120 to 200 degrees F., considerably below the sea-level boiling point of 212.

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Although a recent study by the federal Bureau of Reclamation revived interest in geothermal energy here, the existence of the hot-water reservoir has been public knowledge for at least 50 years.

Charles Richardson, who was manager of a geothermal project in Susanville in the early 1970s, recalls that in the 1930s President Roosevelt's WPA (Works Projects Administration) built a city swimming pool that used the hot water. "I thought for 30 years that it was a waste to have all this geothermal energy underground," Mr. Richardson says. "But until recently no more than that [the swimming pool] was made of it."

The type of low-temperature reserve found here is not uncommon in the Western United States -- and there some are similar sources in other sections of the country. Hot springs and geysers are the most obvious evidence of the resource. But thus far geothermal sources remain bascially unexploited in the US.

Now Susanville and Lassen County have an ambitious plan to utilize the geothermal reserve to heat public buildings, private homes, a state prison facility, and a new industrial park. Heading the project, as "principal geothermal investigator," is Phil Edwardes, a native East African with international expertise in geothermal energy development.

Taking time out from searching for grant money, educating the public, and answering scores of inquiries from around the country, Mr. Edwardes talks about susanville's plans to utilize geothermal. He explains that the primary project, funded by a US Department of Energy grant, will involve pumping hot water from the reserve beneath Susanville through miles of pipeline to 17 public buildings, 12 of them schools.

Federal dollars used for the schools will be repaid from conservation dollars -- money the school district does not spend for heating fuel.

Bids were recently sought for construction of pipelines and retrofitting of buildings to use the hot-water heat. Construction is slated to begin in the spring.

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The second part of the project is a home heating pilot project financed through a US Department of Housing and Urban Development grant. Edwardes explains: "We created a model, an average home of 1,200 square feet with an average type of insulation. It would cost around $779 a year to comfortably heat that house. Using geothermal, we could bring that down to $390 a year."

The city hopes this demonstration home will encourage residents to convert to geothermal heating.

In addition, the City of Susanville has proposed a "park of commerce," hoping to attract agricultural industries to the area. Three firms already have made inquiries. Some 300 new jobs are anticipated, helping to offset a recent employment slump in the county.

he industrial park will be adjacent to a state prison, and the intent is to convert the prison from oil heat to primarily geothermal, recycling hot water through pipelines to the commercial enclave.

Backup heating systems are considered necessary in case a natural event such as an earthquake should render the geothermal system inoperable. Mr. Richardson , who has been a leader in local energy projects, thinks he has the answer: biomass energy conversion. In such a system waste products would be combined with wood residues to heat water. Richardson borrowed the idea from the Danes, and he visited the Danish Embassy in San Francisco in search of advice. Returning to Susanville, Richardson reported that the Danes "have been doing for 40 or 50 years what we are just learning to do, and they want to export their technology."

The US Forest Service hopes to provide wood wastes for the biomass system. Service officials say that if dead wood can be gathered and transported to such sites as the one proposed in Susanville, the incidence of destructive forest fires can be diminished. Already, local residents are permitted to ga ther wood for their home stoves from the national forest

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