Getting steamy

Nevada exports its geothermal technology

Engineers at ElectraTherm prepare one of four machines shipped to Germany last week.

Engineers at ElectraTherm prepare one of four machines shipped to Germany last week.


For highlights from the GEA Geothermal Energy Expo, visit

The geothermal industry has an opportunity to show other green energy industries how to work with competitive businesses—by developing technology that takes care of other business’ problems, while generating zero-emission power.

For instance, using a machine designed and built by Reno-based company ElectraTherm, geothermal energy can be harnessed from the excess hot water separated from oil during the oil drilling process. When oil is drilled, hot water is pulled to the surface, and then pushed back down into the ground. ElectraTherm’s CEO John Fox says that this is a waste of potential energy.

“That’s fuel to us,” he says.

He also says that by partnering with the oil and gas industry, they can better tap into geothermal resources because oil drilling has already scouted out the best places to drill.

“The hardest part about geothermal energy is drilling … and what you find at the bottom of that well,” says Fox.

The device is called the Green Machine, and ElectraTherm has found an international market for it. It produces zero-emission, fuel-free electricity. Besides its use in oil drilling, the Green Machine can also make electricity from solar thermal, biomass, boilers and internal combustion engines. Essentially, the machine takes excess heat—the heat is evaporated and transformed into vapor, which spins a generator and produces power. Then the vapor is condensed, and the process starts all over again. The project is funded by a U.S. Department of Energy grant awarded in phases, the first of which went to research and development of waste heat energy production. Phases two and three consisted of development of the Green Machine.

Last week, ElectraTherm shipped off four geothermal generators to Germany. The company also has products in Austria, Romania and Hungary. Besides oil, Fox says ElectraTherm works with farmers to help them become energy producers using waste from agriculture, such as the heat from compost piles.

A farmer in Austria “makes methane,” Fox says, and “he makes power, and he sells his power.” A district in Romania equips the Green Machine to heat and cool its facilities, including the local swimming pool. In Germany, more than 8,000 farms produce power, contributing to 7 percent of Germany’s overall power.

ElectraTherm is one of several Nevada geothermal companies honored by the Geothermal Energy Association, along with other local projects like Ormat, Ram Power and Geothermal Development Associates (“Geothermal heats up Nevada,” July 5). The Geothermal Energy Association’s annual Geothermal Energy Expo was held in Reno this year at the Peppermill Resort and Casino, a facility run entirely by geothermal energy. More than 160 exhibitors from around the world were present. According to Karl Gawell, executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association, Nevada has an opportunity to lead the way in geothermal energy.

“There’s a lot of need for these technologies,” he says. “It’s just a question of human ingenuity to figure it out.”